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Spotlight: U.S. Nobel laureates denounce end to coronavirus research grant



A group of 77 U.S. Nobel laureates expressed their “grave concern” for the recent cancellation of a federal grant to a U.S. non-governmental organization which was researching coronaviruses and had collaboration with China.

In a recent open letter to Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the 77 American Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics, asked for an investigation into the cancellation of the grant from NIH to EcoHealth Alliance, a group that researches bat coronaviruses headquartered in New York.

“We believe that this action sets a dangerous precedent by interfering in the conduct of science and jeopardizes public trust in the process of awarding federal funds for research,” said the letter.

For many years, researchers at EcoHealth Alliance have been conducting highly regarded, NIH-supported research on coronaviruses and other infectious agents, focusing on the transmission of these viruses from animal hosts to human beings, according to the letter.

Their work depends on productive collaborations with scientists in other countries, including scientists in Wuhan, China. “Now is precisely the time when we need to support this kind of research if we aim to control the pandemic and prevent subsequent ones,” the Nobel recipients said in the letter.

They said the grant was “abruptly terminated” by NIH on April 24, 2020, just a few days after U.S. President Donald Trump responded to a question from a reporter who erroneously claimed that the grant awarded millions of dollars to investigators in Wuhan.

The NIH informed the research organization that the grant was being terminated because “NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities,” according to the letter.

“Such explanations are preposterous under the circumstances,” said the Nobel recipients.

They said the abrupt revoking of the grant contravenes basic tenets, and deprives the nation and the world of highly regarded science that could help control one of the greatest health crises in modern history and those that may arise in the future.

The Nobel recipients ask Azar and Collins to conduct and release a thorough review of the actions that led to the decision to terminate the grant, and take appropriate steps to “rectify the injustices” that may have been committed in revoking it.

The Nobel laureates’ letter came a day after a letter of protest from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) to Collins, on behalf of 31 scientific societies.

The overall goal of EcoHealth Alliance’s research project is to study coronavirus transmission from species to species. But the purpose of the research project has been conflated with rumors, which is worrisome, said the letter.

International collaboration has propelled the American research enterprise to achieve vital innovations and discoveries; it is the gold standard for the scientific community, the letter noted.

These scientific societies call on the NIH to be “transparent” about their decision-making process on this matter, adding the action taken by the NIH must be “immediately reconsidered.”

“The continued politicization of science during this pandemic crisis is an alarming trend that is risking not only the integrity of science, but also the lives of citizens,” said Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for ASBMB, in a statement.

According to a report of The New York Times, Harold Varmus, a former director of the NIH, said that the government always sets broad priorities for research that some scientists may disagree with, including restrictions on use of embryonic stem cells, but that this research was squarely in line with federal priorities.

He called the cancellation “an outrageous abuse of political power to control the way science works.”