HHS Suspends Funding of EcoHealth Alliance


Federal officials today suspended federal funding for the EcoHealth Alliance, possibly dealing a mortal blow to a U.S. research nonprofit that has been under fire since early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The group has been the focus of concerns that SARS-CoV-2 may have emerged from bat virus research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and conducted by EcoHealth’s collaborators in Wuhan, China.

In a letter to the New York City organization, an official for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH’s parent agency, informed the group it is suspended from all federal funding programs and that the department is proposing to formally debar—or ban—the organization from receiving future funding. Grants from NIH and other U.S agencies provide the bulk of its budget, which was about $14 million in 2022.

HHS Suspends Funding of EcoHealth Alliance
HHS Suspends Funding of EcoHealth Alliance. Find here the whole letter by HHS

EcoHealth said in a statement it “is disappointed by HHS’[s] decision today and we will be contesting the proposed debarment. 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 move comes 2 weeks after a bipartisan House of Representatives panel grilled EcoHealth President Peter Daszak about allegations the group had violated NIH grant rules. Members of the House’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic cited missteps such as the group filing a late progress report on its bat virus studies and highlighted allegations that EcoHealth misrepresented the risks of experiments conducted by its collaborators at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

The announcement also comes 1 day before a top NIH official is scheduled to testify before the same panel. Representative Brad Wenstrup (R–OH), chair of the subcommittee, called HHS’s actions “a victory for the U.S. taxpayer, but also for American national security and the safety of citizens worldwide.” The panel’s ranking member, Representative Raul Ruiz (D–CA), also praised HHS’s action. While noting Democrats on the panel do not believe EcoHealth helped create the pandemic, he pointed to EcoHealth’s “failure” to “meet the utmost standards of transparency and accountability to the American public.”

The suspension involves EcoHealth’s management of a grant to study bat coronaviruses with WIV, which received a small subaward. In April 2020, then-President Donald Trump pressured NIH to ax the grant after some conservative politicians and commentators alleged that SARS-CoV-2 could have leaked from WIV. That move sparked condemnation by scores of scientists who defended EcoHealth’s actions and history of pandemic prevention research. HHS reinstated the grant a few months later but immediately suspended it. Last year it was restarted without WIV, which failed to respond to NIH’s requests for lab notebooks related to the work.

Meanwhile, documents obtained through public records requests by The Intercept raised numerous questions about EcoHealth’s oversight of the work. For example, they found that WIV had filed a 2019 progress report more than 2 years late. Critics also suggested experiments at the lab creating hybrid bat viruses qualified as dangerous “gain-of-function” (GOF) research that should have received high-level scrutiny from HHS. EcoHealth noted it consulted on the work with NIH, which found the experiments did not meet its definition for risky GOF studies.

At last month’s hearing, both Democrats and Republicans hammered Daszak and EcoHealth for allegedly mismanaging grants and making misleading statements about the work at WIV. NIH had told the committee last fall that a forensic audit found no evidence to support EcoHealth’s claims that it was unable to file the 2019 progress report because it was locked out of NIH’s grants system.

In an 11-page memo, HHS suspension and debarment official Henrietta Katrina Brisbon echoes the select committee’s concerns, including questions about whether EcoHealth should have reported an experiment finding unexpected growth in mice of a chimeric virus distantly related to SARS-CoV-2. “I have determined that the immediate suspension of EHA [EcoHealth Alliance] is necessary to protect the public interest and due to a cause of so serious or compelling a nature that it affects EHA’s present responsibility,” the memo states.

It is relatively rare for HHS to debar an NIH grantee. Debarments typically last about 3 years, but agencies have the option of lengthening or shortening the penalty.

For years, EcoHealth has led research aimed at identifying viruses found in the wild that could pose a threat to humans. That work has produced hundreds of publications over the past 2 decades, including papers in high-profile journals such as Science and Nature. The group has a total of three active NIH grants totaling $2.6 million in fiscal year 2023 to study the risks that animal viruses will jump to humans in Southeast Asia and how Nipah virus moves from bats to people in Bangladesh. It also has large awards from the Department of Defense and other U.S. agencies.

Lawrence Gostin, an expert on global health law at Georgetown University, says that although EcoHealth has 30 days to contest the suspension, he expects any such effort will fail.

“All in all, this has an unpleasant political smell behind it,” Gostin says, adding that he believes the move reflects “a political campaign to dissuade scientific cooperation with China.”

Virologist Stuart Neil of King’s College London says the alleged grant offenses are not “crimes, nor are they evidence of misuse of public money.” He calls the HHS action “performative political nonsense carried through by the cowardice of the ranking Democrat members [on] the select committee.”

Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, adds that “EcoHealth Alliance is one of the few organizations we have to track the emergence of new and dangerous virus pathogens. If they disappear, our national security suffers.”

But critics of EcoHealth applauded the decision. More details may come out at tomorrow’s hearing, where NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak will answer questions about EcoHealth and NIH’s grants process. [Letter of suspension signed, Science article,  Ecowatch CEO grilled, Hearing with Tabak]

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