Hiltzik: Ending Trump’s anti-science insurance policies, 3 years late
Outside a limited cadre of professional virus and epidemic experts, the Monday announcement of a four-year, $2.5-million government grant to an obscure scientific research organization probably attracted little notice.
But it was much more important than it appeared on the surface. The grant to New York-based EcoHealth Alliance has largely ended a political attack on research into COVID-19 that began in 2020 under the Trump administration.
It is undisputable that the Trump White House ordered the National Institutes of Health to terminate a $3.4-million grant to EcoHealth in April 2020, based on entirely unfounded right-wingers’ claims that EcoHealth was funding so-called gain-of-function virus research in China, something they say could have allowed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to escape from a Chinese laboratory and infect the world.
‘It was unprecedented for [the National Institutes of Health] to act in response to political pressure and cancel a grant. If there were good scientific grounds for it, then that would be one thing, but there were zero.’
— Richard Roberts, Nobel laureate
The consequences for the independence of scientific research generally and for research into COVID’s origins have been incalculable.
While it is “impossible to say what would have been accomplished if the hiatus in funding did not occur,” former NIH director Harold Varmus told me by email, restoring the grant “cannot restore the three years in which [EcoHealth] was deprived of support for such critical work at a critical time.”
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Trump’s action magnified what already had become a targeted attack on EcoHealth and its president, Peter Daszak. Republicans and advocates of the theory that the COVID virus leaked from a Chinese lab have tried to depict them as villains of the pandemic.
To many scientists in the field, the opposite is true. “People don’t understand the importance of the hard work EcoHealth Alliance is doing and how unique and critically important it is,” said Peter Hotez, a molecular virologist who is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University. “There are not many groups doing the granular grunt work needed to understand how these viruses emerge and transfer to humans.”
The reason for the lab leak cabal’s targeting of EcoHealth is obvious. The promoters are invested in a conspiracy theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, possibly for nefarious purposes. But the theory is supported by not a speck of evidence.
Conspiracy theorists lacking evidence, like the lab leak cabal, require targets on which to concentrate their followers’ attention. In this case, the targets included EcoHealth and Daszak.
In its initial form, the lab leak theory held that the Chinese government deliberately created the virus as a biological weapon. Concocted by Trump minions at the State Department, it evolved into a claim that the virus originated in experiments to enhance certain features of microbes so their effects on human cells could be better studied in the lab (“gain-of-function” experiments).
Blaming the Chinese laboratory for the pandemic has remained an unchanging feature of the hypothesis. Another is the unfounded claim that Anthony Fauci, who recently retired as director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was complicit in funding the Chinese research, chiefly through EcoHealth. In fact, the EcoHealth grant application went through traditional professional reviews, in which Fauci played no role, and emerged with gold-plated recommendations.
Data compiled by virologists and epidemiologists overwhelmingly support the so-called zoonosis theory — that SARS-CoV-2 reached humans from mammals harboring the virus, probably from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak was first seen in late 2019.
The hypothesis conforms to what we know about how pathogens have typically reached humans — from animal hosts. It’s supported by numerous peer-reviewed studies of the COVID pandemic published in respected journals. There are no such studies supporting the lab-leak claims — undoubtedly because no empirical evidence for them exists.
That path leading from animals to humans has been a focus of EcoHealth’s work. The restored grant, which originally amounted to $3.4 million, was aimed at determining how coronaviruses — the category that includes SARS-CoV-2 — may have spilled over from bats to humans.
“People in rural China were getting infected with these bat coronaviruses,” Daszak said. Chinese farmers swarmed through bat caves, generally to collect bat guano to use as fertilizer, exposing themselves to a multitude of viruses harbored by the wildlife.
“If you can find out what occupation, what behavioral pathways are driving that, then you stand a better chance of intervening and stopping the initial spillover,” Daszak said.
The attack on EcoHealth’s funding began after a reporter for the right-wing organization Newsmax mentioned the grant to Trump at a press conference on April 17, 2020.
The reporter, Emerald Robinson, said the NIH had given the Wuhan lab $3.7 million. She asked, “Why would the U.S. give a grant like that to China?”
Actually, Robinson got it wrong. The $3.7 million she mentioned (actually $3.4 million) was the entire grant to EcoHealth; of that sum, about $600,000 had been advanced to the Wuhan lab, one of eight foreign and domestic subrecipients that EcoHealth funded through the grant.
Nevertheless, Trump took the ball and ran with it. “We will end that grant very quickly,” he said.
NIH terminated the grant one week later. Its explanation was that the grant did not “align with the program goals and agency priorities.”
No one familiar with the project believed that. Rather, it seemed crystal clear that the cancellation was ordered by the Trump administration. Indeed, Fauci acknowledged during a House committee hearing in June, “we were told to cancel it.” He said later that the order had come from the Trump White House.
The termination evoked widespread criticism throughout the scientific community.
In an open letter addressed to NIH Director Francis Collins and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, 77 Nobel laureates said the cancellation “sets a dangerous precedent by interfering in the conduct of science and jeopardizes public trust in the process of awarding federal funds for research.”
The laureates wrote that NIH’s explanation for the cancellation was “preposterous under the circumstances.”
“It was unprecedented for NIH to act in response to political pressure and cancel a grant,” Richard Roberts, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1993 and who organized the open letter, told me. “If there were good scientific grounds for it, then that would be one thing, but there were zero.”
In another open letter, a coalition of 30 biomedical research organizations told Collins that the termination “politicizes science at a time when … we need the public to trust experts and to take collective action.”
In July, NIH responded to the uproar by reinstating the EcoHealth grant, but immediately suspended it until seven conditions involving the Wuhan Institute of Virology were met. Most fell outside the terms of the original grant. Others were manifestly beyond EcoHealth’s authority over the Chinese lab.
Followers of Trumpian COVID conspiracy theories will recognize some of these conditions as fixations of the lab leak crowd. The NIH demanded that EcoHealth “explain the apparent disappearance of Huang Yanling,” an institute worker who didn’t even work with viruses. Lab leak promoters have been fanatically obsessed with the idea that she was “patient zero” of the pandemic — infected, then arrested by her government and now probably dead.
There is not a speck of evidence for that. She left the lab for reasons unknown, as people do, and there’s nothing to validate the fantasy that she was infected or died. Her photo was removed from a directory of Wuhan lab employees — probably because she no longer worked there. NIH was demanding that EcoHealth chase a chimera.
EcoHealth was also ordered to force the institute to submit to an outside inspection team with full access and to force the institute to respond to cables issued by the State Department in 2018 about “safety concerns” at Chinese labs.
At the time, EcoHealth called these conditions “impossible and irrelevant.” They were worse: They were cynically imposed by NIH, at the behest of its White House puppet-masters, in full knowledge that they could not be met.
Ultimately, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the NIH, deemed the termination “improper.” (Its report found a number of technical violations of EcoHealth’s grant award, including about $89,000 in unallowable expenditures related to disputed calculations of permissible salary and benefit payments to employees; that was the equivalent of about 1% of EcoHealth’s total active grants, and has been repaid to the government.)
The attacks on EcoHealth and Fauci are part and parcel of long-standing Republican attacks on science for purely partisan reasons. They’re related to the anti-vaccine movement, which threatens to bring vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and polio back into the American mainstream; molecular virologist Hotez estimates that the right’s opposition to COVID vaccines has cost 200,000 American lives.
“This business of portraying scientists as enemies of the state is dangerous,” Hotez said. “The political drivers for the assaults on biomedical science and scientists,” he wrote recently, “resemble those directed against climate science and scientists that began a decade ago.”
Even with the EcoHealth grant’s restoration, the partisan miasma created by Trump and anti-science right-wingers persists. The restored grant still incorporates conditions evidently imposed on no other NIH grant recipients. These include heightened progress reporting and inspection requirements. “These things make you do a lot more work, but they’re not impossible conditions and we’ve gone along with them,” Daszak said. “We just want to get on with the work.”
EcoHealth is no longer partnering with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Work under the restoration will be conducted by a collaboration between Duke University and the National University of Singapore.
NIH’s termination of the EcoHealth grant still rankles the scientific community to this day.
“There was no justification in the first place for the actions taken by NIH … clearly under initial political pressure from the Trump White House, “ said Gerald T. Keusch, director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories at Boston University.
“NIH has not owned up to the inappropriate and dangerous interference in the key principles of peer review and management of research it funds by publicly clarifying what happened,” Keusch said. “To close the case file on this NIH must admit to what happened so that steps can be taken to be certain it never can happen again.”