The United States suspends funding for the Center of Covid Origins Fight group

The Biden administration, under intense pressure from House lawmakers, moved on Wednesday to ban funding from a prominent virus-hunting nonprofit group whose work with Chinese scientists had put it at the center of theories that Covid would have leaked from a laboratory.

The decision, announced in a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services, came on the heels of a fiery congressional hearing this month in which lawmakers attacked the group's president for allegedly misrepresenting its work with virologists in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began. Republicans went further, demanding that Peter Daszak, the president of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, be criminally investigated.

For EcoHealth, which relied on federal funding to study the threat of wild animal viruses, the loss of funding is another twist in a saga that has long dominated discussions about how the pandemic began.

In April 2020, at the behest of the Trump administration, the National Institutes of Health ended a grant to EcoHealth amid President Donald J. Trump's feud with China over the origin of the coronavirus. Three years later, an internal federal oversight agency determined that the NIH had failed to provide adequate justification for ending the grant, which provided an average of about $625,000 a year. The NIH has restarted a scaled-down version of the award.

Now, with Republicans escalating their campaign against EcoHealth and Democrats joining in the anger, the Biden administration has once again cut funding for EcoHealth.

Health officials said they were suspending three active NIH grants to EcoHealth totaling $2.6 million last year. And they proposed barring the group from receiving future federal research funding. Such bans, they said, usually last no more than three years, but could be longer or shorter.

In explaining the decision, health officials cited a series of errors that the NIH first reported nearly three years ago. Chief among them was EcoHealth's failure to timely report the results of studies on how bat coronaviruses grow in mice, health officials said.

“I have determined that the immediate suspension of the EHA is necessary to protect the public interest,” wrote Henrietta K. Brisbon, a health department official, referring to the EcoHealth Alliance.

He cited problems in EcoHealth's monitoring of work done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some of EcoHealth's grant money was apportioned; late submission of a progress report; and the possibility that a risky experiment had violated the terms of a grant.

EcoHealth said it will challenge the proposal to exclude it from federal funding.

“We strongly disagree with the decision and will present evidence to refute each of these allegations and to demonstrate that NIH's continued support of the EcoHealth Alliance is in the public interest,” the nonprofit said in a statement.

EcoHealth has also faced suspicion over a federal grant proposal it made in 2018 to collaborate with the same Wuhan virology lab on coronavirus experiments that Republicans say could have led to the pandemic, although that project never received funding.

But despite all the scrutiny of EcoHealth, there remains no evidence directly linking it to the start of the pandemic.

Federal health officials have repeatedly said that the viruses studied with taxpayer funding in the Wuhan lab bore no resemblance to the one that sparked the coronavirus outbreak, making it impossible that they were responsible for the public health crisis.

Many scientists, including some whose criticism of EcoHealth has been cited by House lawmakers in recent weeks, say the early cases and viral genomes point to a different origin of the pandemic: an illegal wildlife market in Wuhan. Samples collected from the market last year were revealed to contain genetic material from the coronavirus and animals such as raccoon dogs, a scenario that scientists said was consistent with a market origin.

Representative Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, a Republican who serves as chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which held the hearing this month, celebrated the suspension of EcoHealth funding. He called it “not only a victory for American taxpayers, but also for American national security and the safety of citizens around the world.”

Representative Raul Ruiz of California, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, also welcomed the decision, describing EcoHealth's conduct as “a departure from the long-standing legacy of good faith partnerships between the NIH and federal grantees.”

Last year, the Biden administration banned the Wuhan Institute of Virology from receiving federal funding for a 10-year period.

The health department said in a statement that EcoHealth failed to comply with federal regulations, necessitating that it too now be banned. But the health department did not respond to questions about the timing of that decision, nearly three years after most of the facts cited in its assessment were released by health officials.

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