After the “termination and suspension” of a grant awarded in 2019, NIH and EcoHealth Alliance have announced a grant from NIAID to conduct research into zoonotic coronaviruses. With the intention of addressing “salient questions” on the “origin, diversity, capacity to cause illness, and risk of spillover of these viruses to people”, EcoHealth Alliance will collaborate with the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School.   

COVID-19 concerns 

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, then-President of the US, Donald Trump, called for the cancellation of the grant in April 2020. Science suggests that this was due to “unsupported allegations” of a lab leak at Wuhan Institute of Virology.  

“The project later drew concerns for experiments, conducted in virologist Shi Zhengli’s lab at WIV, in which researchers attached the spike protein of various wild bat coronaviruses to a different virus “backbone” in order to gauge the wild pathogens’ potential to infect human airway cells.”  

This research would enable scientists to isolate the role of the spike protein and investigate coronaviruses that can’t easily be cultured. However, “critics” argued that this was “gain-of-function” (GOF) research. This argument was refuted by NIAID and Dr Anthony Fauci, its director at the time.  

What do we know? 

Ecohealth Alliance states that zoonotic coronaviruses (CoVs) “represent a significant threat to global health, as we have seen through the emergence of SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and SARS-CoV-2. Having identified bats as the wildlife reservoirs of SARSr-CoV, EcoHealth Alliance has published “hundreds” of novel sequences from wildlife in China and Southeast Asia.  

“Our work has demonstrated that bats in this region harbour an extraordinary diversity of SARS-CoVs.” 

However, the remaining questions are many, so this renewal grant is important in the eyes of its recipients.  

The project objectives 

EcoHealth Alliance identifies 3 project objectives: 

  1. Characterise and analyse more than 300 new whole genomes and large genome segments of SARSr-CoVs from archived samples to determine the processes underlying coronavirus recombination and identify viral strains with a high predicted risk of spillover. 
  2. Analyse archived samples from community- and clinic-based syndromic surveillance of people to identify evidence spillover, assess behavioural risk factors, and pinpoint evidence of illness. 
  3. Conduct in vitro viral chcaracterisation and in silico analysis of epidemiological data to identify hotspots of further CoV spillover risk. 
Revised aims 

Specific aims have been “revised” through consultation with NIAID and NIH staff to “respond to any ongoing concerns”. This has been achieved through the removal of “all on-the-ground work in China and all recombinant virus culture or infection experiments” as well as “additional oversight mechanisms”.  

  1. Identifying high-spillover risk bat SARSrCoV sequences in southern China and assessing drivers of recombination 
  2. Conducting community- and clinic-based surveillance of archived pre-COVID-19 human samples to identify SARSr-CoV spillover events, routes of exposure, and potential public health consequences 
  3. Characterising SARSr-CoV binding, ability to evade therapeutics/vaccines, and identifying spillover hotspots. 

Are you satisfied that these aims address the original concerns, or would you prefer to see a more cautious approach?