Emails show that NIH officials allowed EcoHealth Alliance to craft oversight language governing its own gain-of-function research.
By Sharon Lerner, Mara Hvistendahl
THE NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH allowed a U.S. nonprofit it funds to police its own controversial research on bat coronaviruses in China, raising new concerns about insufficient oversight at the agency.
Detailed notes on NIH communications obtained by The Intercept show that beginning in May 2016, agency staff had an unusual exchange with Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, about experiments his group was planning to conduct on coronaviruses under an NIH grant called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.” The notes were taken by congressional staff who transcribed the emails.
EcoHealth was entering the third year of the five-year, $3.1 million grant that included research with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other partners. In a 2016 progress report, the group described to NIH its plans to carry out two planned experiments infecting humanized mice with hybrid viruses, known as “chimeras.”
The plans triggered concerns at NIH. Two staff members — Jenny Greer, a grants management specialist, and Erik Stemmy, a program officer handling coronavirus research — wrote to EcoHealth Alliance to say that the experiments “appear to involve research covered under the pause,” referring to a temporary moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research that would be reasonably anticipated to make MERS and SARS viruses more pathogenic or transmissible in mammals. Generally, gain-of-function research involves manipulating viruses to give them new attributes; it becomes of concern to the government when the altered viruses appear likely to cause more severe disease or spread more easily among humans.
One of the experiments proposed by EcoHealth Alliance involved making chimeras from the MERS virus. The other experiment used chimeras developed from bat viruses related to SARS. The researchers went on to infect the genetically engineered mice with the altered viruses.
Initially, NIH staff appeared intent on enforcing the funding pause. The two administrators requested additional information from EcoHealth Alliance within 15 days and noted that the next round of funding would be withheld until the information was received. They also asked the group to provide a detailed description of changes that would allow the researchers to pursue their aims without conducting the dangerous experiments.Agency staff adopted language that EcoHealth Alliance crafted to govern its own work.
But what happened next sets off alarm bells for biosafety advocates: Agency staff adopted language that EcoHealth Alliance crafted to govern its own work. The agency inserted several sentences into grant materials describing immediate actions the group would take if the viruses they created proved to become more transmissible or disease-causing as the result of the experiments.
Although the experiments demonstrate a lack of oversight and present dangers to public health, according to several scientists contacted by The Intercept, none of the viruses involved in the work are related closely enough to SARS-CoV-2 to have sparked the pandemic.
In December 2017, the funding for some gain-of-function research was resumed under carefully constructed guidelines for “Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight,” or P3CO — but the language suggested by Daszak helped the group evade this oversight as well. In July 2018, NIAID program officers decided that the experiments on humanized mice — which had been conducted a few months earlier — would get a pass from these restrictions as long as EcoHealth Alliance immediately notified appropriate agency officials according to the circumstances that the group had laid out.
While it is not unusual for grantees to communicate with their federal program officers, the negotiation of this matter did not appropriately reflect the gravity of the situation, according to Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “The discussions reveal that neither party is taking the risks sufficiently seriously,” said Bloom. “MERS-CoV has killed hundreds of people and is thought to pose a pandemic risk, so it’s difficult to see how chimeras of MERS-CoV with other high risk bat coronaviruses shouldn’t also be considered a pandemic risk.”“The NIH is bending over backward to help people it’s funded.”
“It’s absolutely outrageous,” said Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. “The NIH is bending over backward to help people it’s funded. It isn’t clear that the NIH is protecting the U.S. taxpayer.”
The NIH did not respond to questions about the communications with Daszak. EcoHealth Alliance did not immediately respond to questions.