The research was the target of a conspiracy theory about the origin of the new coronavirus
The National Institutes of Health abruptly cut off funding to a long-standing, well-regarded research project on bat coronaviruses only after the White House specifically told it to do so, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Fauci made the revelation Tuesday at a Congressional hearing on the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is caused by a coronavirus that is genetically linked to those found in bats. Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) asked Fauci why the NIH abruptly canceled funding for the project, which specifically worked to understand the risk of bat coronaviruses jumping to humans and causing devastating disease.
Fauci responded to Veasey saying: “It was cancelled because the NIH was told to cancel it.”
After the hearing, Fauci clarified to Politico that it was the White House that told the NIH to cancel the funding. An unnamed White House official told Politico that the White House did encourage the funding cut, but ultimately it was the Department of Health and Human Services—of which the NIH is a part—that made the final decision. An HHS spokesperson said only that the funding was cut because “the grantee was not in compliance with NIH’s grant policy.”
The involvement of the White House is a new wrinkle in a story that has appalled and angered scientists. Since the grant was nixed in late April, scientists had speculated that politics and a conspiracy theory played a role in canceling funding for the research, which was in good scientific standing and seen as critical work. The grant, titled “Understanding the risk of bat coronavirus emergence,” was originally funded by the NIH in 2014 and renewed for another five years in 2019 after receiving an outstanding peer-review score.
Following Dr. Fauci’s revelations Tuesday, EcoHealth President Peter Daszak tweeted that it was an “obvious case of political interference.”
“Eventually, we’ll all know the shoddy truth of how a conspiracy theory pushed by this administration led @NIHDirector to block the only US research group still working in China to analyze COVID origins,” he wrote. “Thanks to this China can now do the research, we can’t!”
Scientists, meanwhile, have roundly refuted claims that the WIV was the source of the new coronavirus, noting that natural spillover from animals is the most likely source.