Coronavirus: Trump slashes funding for research group and promotes conspiracy theory it sent money to Wuhan lab
National Health Institute halts all funding for research group studying how coronavirus spreads from bats to humans after unfounded claims it was funnelling money to a lab in Wuhan, China
Donald Trump’s administration has slashed funding for a New York-based research group studying how various coronavirus strains spread from bats to people after it became linked to unfounded conspiracy theories seemingly supported by the president.
EcoHealth Alliance has received over $3.7m in funding throughout the last five years to study the possibility of coronavirus transmissions between bats and humans — research it said was “critical to preventing pandemics” in a statement.
Mr Trump said “we will end that grant very quickly” at a White House press briefing earlier this month in response to a question from a Newsmax reporter, who inaccurately suggested that the entire $3.7m in funds to the group had actually been directed to a lab in Wuhan, China.
That lab is at the heart of unfounded allegations not supported by US intelligence agencies or leading health officials, which claim without evidence the Covid-19 outbreak began after somehow escaping the facility during a project. Some rumours claim the outbreak was the result of a mistake, while others say it was done on purpose; many scientists do not support either of those theories.
Instead, analysts have said the conspiracy theories are likely in part the result of a severe lack of transparency from China in the initial months of the pandemic. US agencies have launched probes to determine whether the lab was, in fact, conducting a coronavirus study and how that may have possibly impacted the ongoing pandemic, though officials have noted investigations remain inconclusive.
But the president leaned into the accusations earlier this month during the press briefing, blaming his predecessor for granting the funds and saying his administration was reviewing the matter.
“The Obama administration gave that lab in 2015 $3.7m in a grant,” the reporter claimed. “Why would the US give a grant like that to China?”
Mr Trump responded: “The Obama administration gave them a grant of $3.7m, I’ve been hearing about that, and we’ve instructed that if any grants are going to that area, we’re looking at it literally about an hour ago and also earlier in the morning. We will end that grant very quickly.”
“It was granted quite a while ago, they were granted a substantial amount of money,” he added. “Who was president then, I wonder?”
Emails later obtained by Politico showed the National Institutes of Health ordering EcoHealth Alliance to stop spending a remaining $369,819 from its annual grant. That email also said all future funding to the research group had been suspended.
Michael Later, deputy director for extramural research at NIH, reportedly wrote to the group: “At this time, NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities.”
EcoHealth Alliance has confirmed it collaborated with researchers from the facility while using funds from a previous grant. The conspiracy theories point to the fact that EcoHealth Alliance has previously published reports that include at least one scientist from the Wuhan lab in 2018.
The group had reportedly been going back and forth with NIH about the funding in a series of emails soon after EcoHealth Alliance became linked to the Wuhan lab. The group’s president, Pete Daszak, has confirmed that it did not send the entirety of its funds to the Chinese facilities, and made that clear in emails to the institute.
“I can categorically state that no fund from [the grant] have been sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, nor has any contract been signed”, Mr Daszak reportedly wrote to the NIH in one email.
The group said in a statement to Politico that it would be reaching out to the NIH to “understand the rationale behind their decision”.
“For the past 20 years our organisation has been investigating the sources of emerging diseases such as COVID-19,” the statement read. “We work in the United States and in over 25 countries with institutions that have been pre-approved by federal funding agencies to do scientific research critical to preventing pandemics. We are planning to talk with NIH to understand the rationale behind their decision.”