The National Institute of Health (NIH) has decided to resurrect the coronavirus bat research grant that was canceled three years ago by former President Trump’s administration.
The grant will once again be awarded to EcoHealth Alliance (EHA), the organization that previously partnered with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a facility that has faced scrutiny for a possible role in the origin of COVID-19.
The original version of the grant supported the study of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) caused by mixing different bat viruses. The new version will reportedly not have this focus.
The EHA will be teaming up with Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore to conduct their bat virus research. As such, the grant will be used to study simulated genomes of already-collected viruses to figure out how coronaviruses might attack human cells.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology will also reportedly not be directly involved in research itself, but will provide over 300 whole and partial genome sequences of SARS-related bat coronaviruses from its collection to EHA for research.
All of this said, the issues with the grant and its recipient have been ongoing for some time.
In June 2020, the NIH suspended the grant awarded to EcoHealth due to concerns regarding administrative non-compliance. In October, EcoHealth was reprimanded for delaying disclosure of a U.S.-funded experiment, conducted with the Wuhan lab, which found that mice with implanted human cells became sicker with an engineered version of bat coronavirus.
The NIH discovered further violations by EcoHealth in January, according to the Washington Examiner.
Many Congress Republicans have also denounced the research since its main purpose was gain-of-function (GOF). GOF is a scientific term for adjusting an existing pathogen to discover what increases its ability to be transmissible.
However, some researchers praised the grant’s return because now they can “get back to work.”
“It is long overdue. Unfortunately, the original cancellation reflects the ongoing partisan politics where first Trump and now many Republicans are attacking science unfairly,” Nobel Prize winner Richard Roberts of New England Biolabs told Science.org.
Democrats argue that this new grant is a stripped-down version of the old one. The EcoHealth Alliance will receive $576,000 each year over a four-year period.
The NIH has also imposed new accounting rules on EHA. Apparently, their bookkeeping practices drew criticism from government auditors.
EcoHealth is sharing details of the new grant, which restarted on April 26, in order to promote transparency, according to public statements.
“We think we can achieve a huge amount of work based on archived samples … that will really answer some fundamental questions about why coronaviruses have such diversity,” the director of EcoHealth said.