May 11, 2020 - Health

Bat-borne coronavirus researcher speaks out after Trump administration cuts funds

 The Wuhan Institute of Virology in China's central Hubei province on April 17.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology in China's central Hubei province on April 17. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

An American scientist told CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday his group's grant for a years-long project with the Wuhan Institute of Virology was stopped following unproven claims that the novel coronavirus is manmade or escaped from a Chinese government lab.

Driving the news: Peter Daszak, president of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, said the National Institutes of Health told him two weeks ago funding was canceled "for convenience and it doesn't fit within the scope of NIH's priorities." The decision came after President Trump said on April 17 he was looking into claims that the Obama administration had given the group a grant of $3.7 million, vowing to "quickly" end it.

The big picture: The research the NIH previously funded examined the role of bats in the origins of coronaviruses in China. USA Today notes the grant "continued under the Trump administration until it was recently rescinded."

"It is misleading to claim that the Obama administration gave funding to a Chinese research institute. It is true that funds were provided to a project where an American research group worked alongside a Chinese organization. Claims that the funding helped produce the pandemic are unsubstantiated. A total of $3.7 million was not given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, only about $600,000." 
— USA Today on EcoHealth Alliance funding claim

How it works: The British-born Daszak told CBS the group's strategy is to "go to the wildlife source, find out where the viruses are, and try and shift behaviors like hunting and killing wildlife that would lead to the next outbreak." "We also get the information into vaccine and drug developers so they can design better drugs," he added.

  • Daszak told USA Today Sunday his group's grant "was specifically designed to locate where these viruses are and to stop them from harming Americans."
  • "Once we've overcome COVID-19, what about COVID-20? What about COVID-21? Who is going to go out and find those?"

Of note: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is investigating concerns raised by State Department officials who visited the Wuhan institute in January 2018, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian points out.

  • The officials' cables warning of safety issues at the lab were leaked and published by the Washington Post on April 14.
  • "The messages also noted that the lab's research on coronaviruses from bats showed that such viruses had potential for human-to-human transmission and thus posed a risk of pandemic," Axios' China reporter notes.

What he's saying: Despite the intelligence community making clear that the origins of the pandemic are still unknown, the president said on May 1 he has a "high degree of confidence" that the outbreak began in a lab accident in China.

  • Trump tweeted Sunday evening that CBS and "60 Minutes" were "doing everything within their power, which is far less today than it was in the past, to defend China and the horrible Virus pandemic that was inflicted on the USA and the rest of the World. I guess they want to do business in China!"

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Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a fact-check on the NIH funding of EcoHealth Alliance.

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