NIH Says Bat Research Group Didn’t Submit Rapid Virus Findings

NIH Says Bat Research Group Didn’t Submit Rapid Virus Findings


The National Institutes of Health said on Wednesday that a nonprofit group under fire from some Congressional Republicans for its research collaborations in China had not immediately reported the findings of studies on how well bat coronaviruses grow in mice.

In a letter to Representative James Comer, Republican of Kentucky, the NIH said the group, the EcoHealth Alliance, had five days to submit all unpublished data from work conducted under a multi-year grant that the received for the study in 2014. The organization’s scholarship was canceled in 2020 under the administration of President Donald J. Trump during his feud with China over the origins of the coronavirus.

In recent months, NIH officials have dismissed claims — sometimes in heated exchanges with congressional Republicans — that coronaviruses studied with federal funding may have caused the pandemic. dr. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, released a statement Wednesday night reiterating that rebuttal.

“Naturally occurring bat coronaviruses studied under the NIH grant are genetically distant from SARS-CoV-2 and could not possibly have caused the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said in the statement. “All claims to the contrary are demonstrably false.”

EcoHealth Alliance has come under scrutiny for its coronavirus research collaboration with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located in the city where the pandemic began.

Robert Kessler, a spokesperson for the group, said on Thursday that the EcoHealth Alliance was trying to resolve what it described as a “misconception” about its findings with the NIH. He said the group reported data from its investigations “once we were made aware” in April 2018, and that the agency reviewed the data and never indicated that further reviews were needed.

Some scientists have argued that it is possible that SARS-CoV-2 was the result of genetic engineering experiments or simply escaped from a lab in an accident. But direct evidence for those theories has yet to emerge. Others deemed those scenarios unlikely, pointing instead to many lines of evidence suggesting humans contracted the coronavirus from a natural bat overflow or an intermediate mammalian host.

The controversy has drawn attention to the experiments that EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology conducted with funding from the NIH

Last month, The Intercept, an online publication, posted 900 pages of material related to the NIH grants to EcoHealth Alliance for the study. The materials include details about experiments designed to provide new insights into the risk bats coronaviruses have of causing new pandemics.

In some of their experiments, the researchers isolated genes from bat coronaviruses that code for a surface protein called spike. Coronaviruses use the spike protein to bind to host cells, the first step toward infection. The spike protein attaches to a cell surface protein called ACE2.

According to the published materials, the researchers then developed another bat virus, called WIV1, to carry spike proteins from other bat coronaviruses. They then conducted experiments to see if the engineered WIV1 viruses got better at adhering to ACE2 on cells.

Such experiments rekindled a longstanding debate about what kind of research is simply too dangerous to conduct, regardless of the insights it can provide. Experiments that can give viruses new capabilities — sometimes called “gain function” — have raised particular concern.

In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services rolled out the “P3CO framework” for research into “enhanced potential pandemic pathogens”.

dr. Lawrence Tabak, the NIH’s chief deputy director, wrote in the letter to Representative Comer that the agency determined that the study proposed by EcoHealth Alliance did not meet the criteria for additional assessment under that framework “because these bat coronaviruses had not been shown to it infects people.”

But “out of an abundance of caution,” wrote Dr. Tobacco, the agency had added requirements for the EcoHealth Alliance to notify it of certain results of the experiments.

dr. Tobacco noted that in one line of research, the researchers had produced mice that had been genetically engineered to produce the human version of the ACE2 protein on their cells. Infecting these animals with coronaviruses could potentially provide a more realistic picture of the viruses’ risk of infecting humans than just using dishes with cells.

The NIH demanded that EcoHealth Alliance notify the agency if the engineered viruses grow 10 times faster or more than WIV1 without their new spike proteins.

Some experiments showed that viruses did grow quickly.

“EcoHealth did not immediately report this finding, as required by the terms of the grant,” wrote Dr. Tobacco.

The NIH also sent Representative Comer a final progress report that EcoHealth Alliance submitted to the agency in August.

In the report, the researchers describe the discovery that WIV1 coronaviruses designed to carry spike proteins were more virulent. They killed infected mice at faster rates than the WIV1 virus with no spikes from the other coronaviruses.

The application was filed late, the NIH said, nearly two years after the grant-specified 120-day deadline from completion of the work. “Delayed reporting is a violation of the terms of the NIH grant award,” said Renate Myles, an agency spokeswoman.

Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who has called for more research into the origins of the pandemic, said the revelations raised serious questions about the risks of researching viruses from animals, known as zoonotic viruses.

“In my view, some of this research into potential pandemic pathogens carries unacceptable risks,” he said. “In addition to whether EcoHealth has adhered to current regulations, we must honestly ask what research should be done in the future to minimize both zoonotic and laboratory-related pandemic risks.”

And Michael Imperiale, a virologist at the University of Michigan, said the NIH letter raised questions about how the agency evaluated potentially dangerous research and shared it with the public — a need that critics have pointed out for years. “First of all, I think this re-emphasizes the need for transparency in the way the NIH assesses these experiments,” he said.

Some Congressional Republicans have been pushing for more information for months, suggesting the investigation was the source of the pandemic. In a statement, Representative Comer claimed that “thanks to the hard work of Republicans on the Oversight Committee, we now know that U.S. taxpayers’ money has funded profit-of-function research in the Wuhan lab.”

dr. Tobacco’s letter contained no mention of “gain-of-function” research.

Representative Comer also accused Dr. Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institutes for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, of potentially misleading the commission, swearing that the GOP panel will “leave no stone unturned as we seek the truth for the American people about how their tax dollars are being spent.” associated with the onset of this pandemic.”

Ms. Myles rejected the claim that EcoHealth’s experiments constituted a gain-of-function study. She acknowledged that the findings in mice were “somewhat unexpected.” But Ms Myles said the agency had reviewed the research detailed in EcoHealth’s progress report and said it wouldn’t have triggered a review under the stricter protocols for P3CO trials.

“The bat coronaviruses used in this study have not been shown to infect humans, and the experiments were not reasonably expected to increase transmissibility or virulence in humans,” she said.

Mr Kessler, the spokesperson for EcoHealth, said none of the coronaviruses studied by the group were genetically similar enough to the virus behind Covid-19 to have played a role in the start of the pandemic.

On a webpage posted Wednesday evening, the National Institutes of Health provided additional details about the viruses in the EcoHealth experiments, showing that they were not closely related to SARS-CoV-2.

Bats harbor thousands of species of coronaviruses, and since the onset of the pandemic, researchers have looked for the closest relatives of SARS-CoV-2 infecting the animals. They have found several coronaviruses that are much more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than WIV1.

The analysis, wrote Dr. Tobacco in his letter, “confirms that the bat coronaviruses studied under the EcoHealth Alliance grant could not be the source of SARS-CoV-2 and the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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