Trump cut funding for a group researching bat-to-human virus transmissions after unfounded conspiracy theories linked it to a Wuhan lab, report says

President Donald Trump signs the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act in the White House on April 24. Olivier Douliery / AFP / Getty
  • The Trump administration has cut funding to a non-profit agency conducting research on virus transmission between bats and humans, according to Politico.
  • The funding cuts to EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organisation researching on infectious diseases, came after unfounded rumours linked it to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
  • The Wuhan Institute of Virology is a Chinese research institute that conspiracy theorists have claimed, without evidence, leaked the novel coronavirus to the public.
  • EcoHealth Alliance denied sending any of its $US3.7 million in government funding to the Wuhan institute. The Wuhan lab has also denied rumours that it had a role in spreading the coronavirus.
  • Experts have repeatedly said that the theory that the novel coronavirus was lab-leaked is incredibly unlikely, and said the virus most likely jumped from bats to humans.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump’s administration abruptly cut funding to a non-profit conducting research on virus transmission between bats and humans, over unfounded rumours linking it to a research institute in Wuhan, Politico reported.

EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based infectious-diseases research group, had all its future government funding cut to its five-year-long study on bat-to-human virus transmission, Politico reported.

The cut came after rumours groundlessly accused EcoHealth Alliance of sending its $US3.7 million grant received from the US government to fund the Wuhan Institute of Virology – the Chinese research lab which conspiracy theorists have, without evidence, accused of spreading the novel coronavirus to the public.

Wuhan Institute of Virology lab
The P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province, April 17, 2020. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

EcoHealth Alliance denies all charges

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US public health agency who sent the research grant, told EcoHealth Alliance in an email that it also needed to stop spending the rest of its 2020 grant, worth about $US370,000.

“At this time, NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities,” an NIH deputy director wrote in a letter to EcoHealth Alliance officials seen by Politico.

The director also emailed Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, days before funds were frozen, asking for a list of all Chinese links to the group’s study.

EcoHealth Alliance said in a statement that it was planning to speak with the NIH “to understand the rationale behind their decision.”

“For the past 20 years our organisation has been investigating the sources of emerging diseases such as COVID-19,” the group said, according to Politico. “We work in the United States and in over 25 countries with institutions that have been pre-approved by federal funding agencies to do scientific research critical to preventing pandemics.”

According to Politico, Daszak told the NIH that “no funds from [the grant] have been sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, nor has any contract been signed.”

The facility has received over $US3.7 million in research funding between 2014 and 2019, and has published over 20 scientific papers since 2015 on how coronaviruses spread through bats, according to the report.

According to Snopes, a portion of the $US3.7 million in research funding from the NIH to EcoHealth Alliance helped fund research at the Wuhan Institute, though it is unclear how much of the funding or to what capacity the money was used.

A reporter from the conservative outlet Newsmax also asked about US funding to the Wuhan institute at an April 17 White House press briefing, though she did not mention EcoHealth Alliance by name. “We will end that grant very quickly,” Trump told the reporter.

The NIH and EcoHealth Alliance did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s inquiry about the funding cuts.

Wuhan wet market
The Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus outbreak is thought to have originated from. Dake Kang/AP

The Wuhan lab rumours and why experts are shutting it down

The Wuhan Virology Institute, which conducts high-level research on dangerous pathogens, is located about eight miles from the Wuhan wet market found to be the most likely starting point for the coronavirus outbreak.

The agency has been the target of unfounded conspiracy theories claiming that it accidentally leaked the virus out into the public.

The lab has denied any role in spreading the new coronavirus, though the Trump administration has brought attention to the conspiracy theory in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, a set of State Department cables leaked to The Washington Post warned of safety issues at the Wuhan lab, thrusting rumours of a potential lab accident into the spotlight.

But virus researchers have said that the idea the virus was somehow released from the Wuhan lab is incredibly unlikely, and have repeatedly stressed that the virus most likely jumped from bats to humans.

Coronavirus mask
A woman wearing a protective face mask in Battersea Park, London, on March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

The coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it jumps from animals to humans. It also shares similarities with other coronavirus outbreaks, like SARS, which was determined to have likely jumped from bats to civets to people.

In the past 45 years, at least three other pandemics have been traced back to bats, including Ebola, Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), and the Nipah virus.

Despite the lack of evidence supporting the lab-leak theory, experts have had to repeatedly shut down the rumours.

A spokesperson for the World Health Organisation (WHO) poured cold water on the theory last week, stating that the new coronavirus was “likely” of animal origin.

“All available evidence suggests the virus has an animal origin and is not manipulated or constructed in a lab or somewhere else,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told a news briefing.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also downplayed the theory last week, telling a White House press briefing that the virus mutations seemed consistent with the premise that the disease jumped from bats to humans.

Last week, the Wuhan Institute of Virology was targeted by hackers. The WHO, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention were also targeted.