A group of 77 Nobel laureates has asked for an investigation into the cancellation of a federal grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a group that researches bat coronaviruses in China.
The pre-eminent scientists characterized the explanation for the decision by the National Institutes of Health as “preposterous.” The agency said the investigation into the sources of pandemics did not fit “with program goals and agency priorities.”
The Nobel laureates’ letter followed by a day a letter of protest from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to the National Institutes on behalf of 31 scientific societies. The societies include tens of thousands of members, the letter stated. It said the grant cancelation politicized science and concluded, “The action taken by the NIH must be immediately reconsidered.”
The Nobel recipients said the grant was canceled “just a few days after President Trump responded to a question from a reporter who erroneously claimed that the grant awarded millions of dollars to investigators in Wuhan.” President Trump said the grant would be ended immediately.
The grant had been given to EcoHealth Alliance, an organization with headquarters in New York that studies the potential for spillover of animal viruses to humans around the globe. The group collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been at the center of conspiracy theories about how the novel coronavirus originated. Virologists and intelligence agencies agree that the virus evolved in nature and spread from animals to humans.
Days after the news conference in April, the National Institutes of Health emailed Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance. They questioned his work with the Wuhan Institute, and after an exchange of emails, he was informed that the renewal of his grant for more than $3 million was canceled.
Harold E. Varmus, a former director of the N.I.H., said that the government always sets broad priorities for research that some scientists may disagree with, including restrictions on use of embryonic stem cells, but that this research was squarely in line with federal priorities. He called the cancellation “an outrageous abuse of political power to control the way science works.”
Dr. Daszak said that the grant-making agencies score applications for grants. His application for renewal went through the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “We were in the top three percent of grants submitted. I’ve never got a score that good. It clearly was a central, high-impact priority for N.I.H. to fund. And that was 10 months before, before it was terminated.”
Richard J. Roberts, of New England Biolabs, who organized the letter from the laureates, said that when he emailed other Nobel recipients, “the response was overwhelmingly positive and everybody replied very quickly.”
He pointed out the importance of researching the presence of coronaviruses in bats at a time when the world is suffering a pandemic from a coronavirus that overwhelming evidence suggests originated in bats: “If we’re going to cut off funds to someone who is so important in our fight against the coronavirus, where’s it going to stop?”
The laureates sent their letter to Alex M. Azar II, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. They asked the director and secretary to “conduct a thorough review of the actions that led to the decision to terminate the grant, and that, following this review, you take appropriate steps to rectify the injustices that may have been committed in revoking it.”
The letter from the group of scientific societies said, “the decision sets a dangerous precedent” because it offered no “justifiable rationale” for “revoking a grant that was awarded based upon scientific merit.”
At the moment, EcoHealth Alliance is still working in other parts of the world, but it has no ongoing research in China.
Neither the N.I.H. nor the Health and Human Services Department responded to requests for comment in time for publication.