Controversial coronavirus research to resume in US with stricter rules

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Washington, May 9 (IANS) The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has reinstated a grant to New York City-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance to resume controversial research on bat coronaviruses, albeit with stricter restrictions, according to a report by the journal Nature.

EcoHealth Alliance had, in 2020, lost the funding to study how coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2 jump from bats to humans for its collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China.

The Donald Trump administration in April 2020, hinted that the SARS-CoV-2, which caused Covid-19 pandemic, originated in the infamous WIV laboratory.

However, the new 4-year, $2.9 million award comes with an extensive list of restrictions.

The rules forbid EcoHealth from “performing any in-country research in China, including with the WIV, or collecting any new samples from vertebrates — such as bats”, the report said.

The NIH will also scrutinise EcoHealth’s “finances and accounting practices”, as a federal watchdog report in January, claimed finding that the non-profit had misreported about $90,000 in expenses.

“In addition, EcoHealth will be forbidden from performing any work that is deemed by the NIH’s parent organisation, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to have the potential to enhance the virulence or transmission of a virus,” the report said.

According to experts, such research is essential for developing vaccines and therapeutics against emerging pathogens and to avert the next pandemic.

“I don’t know if any other single grantee from NIH has been subjected to this level of oversight,” Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance was quoted as saying.

Daszak added that he is “positive and optimistic” about the grant restart despite all the restrictions.

The organisation has nearly 300 partial or complete genomes of SARS-related coronaviruses from samples collected prior to the funding halt, which will be a key priority to analyse using the newly released grant funds, he said.

According to Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, it is a pleasant surprise to see the grant renewed. She however, worries about “terrible precedent” that the NIH has set by “arbitrarily” terminating an award based on “unfounded rumours” regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the report said.

Rasmussen said she hopes that these restrictions will not apply to other scientists doing similar work.

–IANS

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