A Coalition of 31 Scientific Research Organizations Protests a Grant Revocation by the NIH

May 21, 2020
A political controversy around the revocation of a research grant on the part of the NIH has led a coalition of 31 scientific research organizations to protest the revocation, and to ask the NIH to consider future actions

A political controversy has once again moved scientists to speak out publicly regarding policy and political issues that touch on scientific and medical research. On Wednesday, May 20, the leaders of the Rockville, Md.-based American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), in concert with 30 other scientific research-connected national associations, wrote a letter to Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), expressing their “alarm” at the revocation of a peer-reviewed research grant for studies of coronaviruses by the EcoHealth Alliance, after that grant was revoked for what appeared to be political reasons, with the lead researcher having collaborated in scientific research with a laboratory in Wuhan, China, that has become controversial because of the origin of COVID-19 in Wuhan.

The letter initiated by ASBMB was co-signed by 30 other national societies of researchers, among them the Academy for Radiology and Biomedical Imaging Research, the American Physiological Society, the American Society for Investigative Pathology, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, the American Society for Virology, and numerous others.

As the letter, addressed to Dr. Collins, began, “We, the undersigned scientific organizations representing tens of thousands of members of the American biomedical research enterprise, are alarmed by the National Institutes of Health’s revocation of a peer-reviewed research grant for studies of coronaviruses by EcoHealth Alliance. Not only is this decision counterintuitive, given the urgent need to better understand the virus that causes COVID-19 and identify drugs that will save lives, but it politicizes science at a time when, if we are to stamp out this scourge, we need the public to trust experts and to take collective action. The foundation of the American biomedical research enterprise rests on two principles: international collaboration and a robust peer-review process. Both must be vigilantly upheld,” the letter stated.

And, it continued, “The abrupt revocation of the NIH grant for the EcoHealth Alliance concerns us for two primary reasons: First, the decision seems to be a reaction to a theory about the origins of the COVID-19 virus that the intelligence community itself has publicly repudiated. EcoHealth Alliance at one point collaborated with a lab in Wuhan, China, which has recently been at the center of rumors about the origin of the pandemic. The overall goal of EcoHealth Alliance's research project is to study coronavirus transmission from species to species. But the purpose of the research project has been conflated with these rumors. This is worrisome. International collaboration has propelled the American research enterprise to achieve vital innovations and discoveries; it is the gold standard for the scientific community. The United States is a beacon for the best and brightest minds, consistently attracting top scientists from around the world. However, with this incident, international collaboration is being portrayed as a threat. The scientific enterprise requires diversity, and American scientists depend on their international colleagues to pool resources, expertise, and ultimately make scientific breakthroughs.”

And, “Second, the decision sets a dangerous precedent by revoking a grant that was awarded based upon scientific merit without a justifiable rationale such as issues related to scientific or financial fraud or misconduct. This grant is highly and uniquely relevant to all NIAID priorities to address the current COVID-19 pandemic. Most extramural research funds are awarded through a robust peer-review process. Scientists, not politicians, determine the merit of grant applications, and grant recipients are expected to be careful stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Later on, the letter concludes with this statement: “The scientific community urges federal funding agencies and policymakers to ensure the transparency, openness, and collaborative nature of the American biomedical research enterprise. We call on the NIH to be transparent about their decision-making process on this matter. We urge federal funding agencies to safeguard the American biomedical research enterprise. The action taken by the NIH must be immediately reconsidered.”

The letter references a series of events that unfolded last month. As POLITICO’s Sarah Owermore wrote in a news report on April 27, “The Trump administration abruptly cut off funding for a project studying how coronaviruses spread from bats to people after reports linked the work to a lab in Wuhan, China, at the center of conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic’s origins. The National Institutes of Health on Friday [April 24] told EcoHealth Alliance, the study’s sponsor for the past five years, that all future funding was cut. The agency also demanded that the New York-based research nonprofit stop spending the $369,819 remaining from its 2020 grant, according to emails obtained by POLITICO.” And Owermore quoted a letter from Michael Lauer, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, addressed to EcoHealth Alliance officials, in which he wrote that, “At this time, NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities.”

As POLITICO’s Owermore wrote, “The group caught national attention a week ago after reports swirled that millions from its NIH grants had been sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research facility in the city where the coronavirus pandemic originated. In an email last week to NIH officials, EcoHealth Alliance President Pete Daszak denied giving any money this year to the Wuhan lab, although researchers from the facility have collaborated with EcoHealth Alliance scientists on research supported by an earlier grant. The Wuhan lab is at the center of conspiracy theories alleging that the coronavirus outbreak began when the virus escaped the facility. U.S. intelligence agencies and scientists have not found any evidence to support the rumors.”

Meanwhile, Owermore wrote on April 27, “[T]he  NIH’s strategic plan for studying the novel coronavirus, released Thursday, lays out four key priorities — including understanding its origin and transmission, in line with the EcoHealth alliance’s broader investigation of bat coronaviruses. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on its decision to terminate the group’s funding.”

Later on Wednesday, Benjamin Corb, the ASBMB’s director of public affairs, spoke with Healthcare Innovation Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding the controversy and why ASBMB chose to take action in this situation. Below are excerpts from that interview.

How was the decision made among the leaders of ASBMB to send this letter and to make this public statement?

It was our idea, and then we shared it with other organizations who joined us. So why did it become so important to us? Peter Daszak [Peter Daszak, the scientist who leads EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit biomedical research organization sponsoring the project, has collaborated with Shi Zhengli, a Chinese virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China] is a virologist, not a biochemist. I’ve never met him before and am not familiar with his area of expertise. I represent 12,000 scientific researchers, who were stunned by the fact that a peer-reviewed, competitively reviewed research grant had been revoked. Daszak is clearly a gifted and talented scientist, and his science has been productive. And my members said to me, if this can happen to this guy who’s doing this research, during a pandemic, who’s to say that this couldn’t happen to us? I have a member who is very close to curing a very rare disease that affects maybe 50 people in the world. Who’s to say that that researcher doesn’t get a phone call saying, your grant is gone? Or someone working on Alzheimer’s research?

This is a slippery slope; we cannot sit back and say this is OK. Nor is it OK that the NIH won’t answer any questions about it. If the grant was pulled because Peter was inappropriately funding his data or stealing money, OK. But the answer we’ve heard, since they haven’t given an answer to us—the answer we’ve heard, that this area of research isn’t of importance, doesn’t pass the smell test for us. So if you can do this for now, who’s to say this won’t happen to somebody else? Senator Rand Paul every year publishes a list of grants that he thinks shouldn’t be funded; he took it over from Senator Tom Coburn. They call it the Waste Book. One of the notorious ones was the shrimp on the treadmill. So who’s to say that that Waste Book isn’t used to target research grants? Because this grant was peer-reviewed in 2014, and competitively renewed in 2019. Daszak has published 20 peer-reviewed journal articles on it.

So what’s the reason, other than making China a scapegoat? That can’t be the way that scientific research is conducted in this country. This is just a bridge too far. It also is a trend; before removing Daszak’s grant, the director of BARDA was replaced because he spoke out against hydroxychloroquine. You see the President talking about ingesting Lysol. And just yesterday, the President said that research done on hydroxychloroquine was political. This is dangerous.

How can scientists speak to the public about issues like this one, in a way that the public will understand?

That’s a good question, particularly when we’re talking about complex things. Everybody wants a magic bullet that will allow us to go back to our normal lives, and forget about the pandemic. The reality is that this is a virus that we’ve never seen before, and we’re guessing. Hydroxychloroquine looked good in theory a month ago, and then the evidence came in and it didn’t look so good. Remdesivir looks good in smaller settings. We’ll have to see how it turns out. And a lot of people get concerned about the gray area, and if I’m not 100-percent certain about something, it’s difficult to speak out. But the public understands more sometimes than we think.

I also think that having a voice is important. I do advocacy work around scientific funding, and I teach scientists how to do that. And scientists tell me, we don’t want to be a special interest. But I tell them, actually, science is a special interest; embrace that. And a lot of scientists would rather just stay in their labs, take their funding, and do their work. And most people in the public might be able to name Bill Nigh or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Scientists need to be more comfortable speaking out; the community, the public needs to understand better how science works. That would go a long way in helping us all in this crisis.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

We’re not looking to make things difficult for anybody in the effort we’re doing. The virus doesn’t care about your politics; and the really, really neat thing about science is that science doesn’t care whether you believe it or not; it knows it’s true. The fact that it’s become such a bitter partisan thing—science is the one place where that shouldn’t be the case. We desperately need to get back to the point of removing politics from this; until then, we’re stuck. And I’d really like us to be unstuck.

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