(p. A21) EcoHealth Alliance has come under scrutiny because of its collaboration on coronavirus research with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is situated in the city where the pandemic began.
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Last month, The Intercept, an online publication, posted 900 pages of materials related to the N.I.H. grants to EcoHealth Alliance for the research. The materials provided details about experiments designed to provide new insights into the risk that bat coronaviruses have for sparking new pandemics.
In some of their experiments, the researchers isolated genes from bat coronaviruses that encode a surface protein, called spike. Coronaviruses use the spike protein to bind to host cells, the first step to an infection. The spike protein latches onto a cell-surface protein called ACE2.
According to the materials published, the researchers then engineered another bat virus, called WIV1, to carry spike proteins from other bat coronaviruses. They then conducted experiments to see if the engineered WIV1 viruses became better at attaching to ACE2 on cells.
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Dr. Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director of the N.I.H., wrote in the letter to Representative Comer that the agency determined that the research proposed by EcoHealth Alliance did not meet the criteria for additional review . . .
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Dr. Tabak noted that in one line of research, the researchers had produced mice genetically engineered to produce the human version of the ACE2 protein on their cells. Infecting these animals with coronaviruses could potentially provide a more realistic sense of the risk that the viruses have of infecting humans than just using dishes of cells.
The N.I.H. required that EcoHealth Alliance notify the agency if the engineered viruses turned out to grow 10 times faster or more than WIV1 would without their new spike proteins.
In some experiments, it turns out, that viruses did grow quickly.
“EcoHealth failed to report this finding right away, as required by the terms of the grant,” Dr. Tabak wrote.
The N.I.H. also sent Representative Comer a final progress report that EcoHealth Alliance submitted to the agency in August .
In the report, the researchers describe finding that WIV1 coronaviruses engineered to carry spike proteins were more virulent. They killed infected mice at higher rates than did the WIV1 virus without spikes from the other coronaviruses.
The filing had been submitted late, the N.I.H. said, nearly two years beyond the grant-specified deadline of 120 days from completion of the work. “Delayed reporting is a violation of the terms and condition of N.I.H. grant award,” Renate Myles, a spokeswoman for the agency, said.
Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center who has called for more research into the origins of the pandemic, said the revelations raised serious questions about the risks of investigating viruses originating from animals, known as zoonotic viruses.
For the full story, see:
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(Note: the online version of the story was updated October 28, 2021, and has the title “Bat Research Group Failed to Submit Virus Studies Promptly, N.I.H. Says.”)