May 16, 2024 - Health

HHS cuts off funds to COVID research nonprofit

EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak

EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak during a House oversight hearing on May 1. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

Federal health regulators on Wednesday suspended funding to EcoHealth Alliance, less than a month after a congressional committee grilled the nonprofit's president over its ties with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Why it matters: It marked an abrupt turn for the organization, whose funding of studies on bat coronaviruses in China put it at the center of the debate over the pandemic's origins.

Driving the news: The Department of Health and Human Services cited EcoHealth for a series of reporting lapses on the research, and for not adequately monitoring the Wuhan institute's compliance with the terms of a National Institutes of Health grant that partly funded the work.

  • The Trump administration had canceled an NIH grant to EcoHealth early during the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, amid its dispute with Beijing over COVID's origins. NIH had restored some of the funding with new restrictions last year.
  • HHS on Wednesday also proposed a debarment, in which federal research funds are banned usually for up to three years — but which can last longer if circumstances warrant.

The group has three active NIH grants totaling $2.6 million from last year, per the New York Times, funding studies on zoonotic viruses in southeast Asia and the potential for future bat coronavirus emergence.

  • EcoHealth said it will contest the funding cutoff.
  • "We disagree strongly with the decision and will present evidence to refute each of these allegations and to show that NIH's continued support of EcoHealth Alliance is in the public interest," the group said in a statement.

Between the lines: HHS' move amps up scrutiny of high-risk gain-of-function research that involves enhancing pathogens in a lab to better understand them and their potential for starting pandemics.

  • EcoHealth has previously disputed the characterization that it conducted gain-of-function research.
  • Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who leads a House committee that's probing the coronavirus' origins, said he'll continue to investigate EcoHealth.
  • A top NIH official is scheduled to testify about EcoHealth before Wenstrup's committee on Thursday.
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