The National Institutes of Health told a New York-based nonprofit it needs to turn over information from a research partner in Wuhan, China, if it wants to keep its grant funding, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance must comply in order to win back a multimillion-dollar research grant, according to the Journal.
The nonprofit searches for warning signs of animal viruses that could cause human outbreaks. The group has worked with the Wuhan lab since 2004.
According to a July 8 letter from NIH, obtained by The Wall Street Journal, EcoHealth Alliance must provide a sample of the new coronavirus the Wuhan researchers used to determine its genetic sequence.
The nonprofit also has to arrange for an inspection of the Wuhan Institute of Virology by an outside team. That team would look at the facility's lab and records "with specific attention to addressing the question of whether WIV staff had SARS-CoV-2 in their possession prior to December 2019," the U.S. health-research agency's letter stated.
"The NIH has received reports that the Wuhan Institute of Virology . . . has been conducting research at its facilities in China that pose serious bio-safety concerns," the letter, which was signed by Michael Lauer, the NIH deputy director for extramural research, states.
"We have concerns that WIV has not satisfied safety requirements under the award, and that EcoHealth Alliance hasn't satisfied its obligations to monitor" its partner to ensure it has complied with regulations regarding the use of the grant money, the letter added.
EcoHealth Alliance responded to the NIH last week, calling the U.S. research agency's suspension unjustified, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Journal.
The Trump administration has claimed that the coronavirus causing the current pandemic came from a high-security lab located inside the Wuhan institute.
Researchers told the Journal that NIH's request is far reaching. They said it is common for grant recipients to monitor how subrecipients are using money, but noted NIH does not typically impose the type of conditions it did on EcoHealth Alliance.
Jimmy Kolker, a former U.S. ambassador and former assistant secretary for global affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, told the Journal the NIH can routinely ask for reports about the progress of research, including updates on the work of a partner and the safety of its lab, but should not ask about matters outside the scope of the funded research.
"What they're asking for is intelligence information that will be used for policy-making," he said.
Dr. Harold Varmus, a former NIH director, called the request "outrageous."
Dr. Varmus is one of 77 Nobel laureates who called on NIH Director Francis Collins and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar in May to review the NIH's termination of the grant the month before.
"This whole episode is just a woeful attack on the traditional way NIH has maintained its integrity," he said.
The nonprofit received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 2014. It used funds to study coronaviruses in bats in caves in China and how the viruses infect people. It worked with the Wuhan institute.
According to the nonprofit, the Wuhan institute received $133,000 each year from EcoHealth Alliance for the first four years of that grant and $66,000 in the fifth year.
Last year, the nonprofit's grant was renewed for another five years at $3.7 million. It said it had not sent any grant funds to the Wuhan institute before the grant was suspended.
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