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Nobel laureates and science groups demand NIH review decision to kill coronavirus grant

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Seventy-seven U.S. scientists who have won a Nobel Prize today asked Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, to “act urgently” to review a controversial NIH decision to terminate a grant that supported research into bat coronaviruses in China. NIH’s explanation for killing the grant was “preposterous,” the laureates write.

Thirty-one scientific societies have also written to Collins, calling on NIH “to be transparent about their decision-making process on this matter. … The action taken by the NIH must be immediately reconsidered.

On 24 April, NIH informed the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, led by wildlife disease specialist Peter Daszak, that it was ending a grant, first awarded in 2014 and renewed in 2019 because it no longer aligned with the agency’s priorities. The move came after Conservative U.S. politicians and media suggested—without evidence—that the coronavirus causing the pandemic escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, that employs a Chinese virologist who had received funding from the grant. The termination also came 1 week after President Donald Trump, when asked about the project at a press conference, said: “We will end that grant very quickly.”

In their letter, the Nobel laureates say they “are gravely concerned” about that decision. “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. … 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.”

They write that “despite the high relevance of the studies to the current pandemic, and despite the very high priority score that his application for renewal had received during peer review, the NIH informed Dr. Daszak and his colleagues that the grant was being terminated because ‘NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities.’ Such explanations are preposterous under the circumstances.”

Azar and Collins should, they write, “act urgently to conduct and release a thorough review of the actions that led to the decision to terminate the grant, and that, following this review … take appropriate steps to rectify the injustices that may have been committed in revoking it.”

The signers of the letter include researchers who won a Nobel Prize as recently as 2019, and as long ago as 1975.

The letter from the scientific societies was organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). “Our aim with this effort is to stand up for a scientific enterprise that should be free of political influence on sound scientific research,” said Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for ASBMB, in a statement. “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.”