The U.S. Government has awarded $2.9 million (£2.3m) to the notorious EcoHealth Alliance – considered by many to be linked to the creation of SARS-CoV-2 – to resume bat virus research. But it comes with major restrictions, including a ban on working in China and anything resembling gain-of-function. The Telegraph has more.
EcoHealth Alliance, which was working with Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to collect and study bat viruses before the pandemic, has been allowed to restart experiments after a three-year suspension, but with massive restrictions.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has forbidden the team from carrying out any research in China and banned the collection of bat or human samples.
It has also prohibited scientists from culturing chimeric viruses, carrying out infection experiments or doing anything that has the potential to enhance the virulence or transmission of a virus.
The team has been also told it must operate at biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) – the laboratory grade for studying infectious agents or toxins that may be transmitted through the air and cause a potentially lethal infection. Previously work at WIV was being carried out under biosafety level 2.
Scientists told the journal Nature they had never seen a grant with so many stipulations attached. U.S. based EcoHealth, which is headed up by the British zoologist Peter Daszak, said it had also agreed to “additional oversight mechanisms” under the four-year $2.9 million (£2.3m) grant.
Mr Daszak told the Telegraph it was still possible to carry out research with the restrictions, adding that the sensitive political climate surrounding virus experiments had made previous operations more difficult.
“We have many untested bat and human samples from other countries. We realised that we can still answer fundamental questions about coronavirus spillover even without further sampling or laboratory work in China,” he said.
“It seemed that the most straightforward way to move forwards was to propose to NIH that we do no on-the-ground sampling in China or elsewhere, that we replace the recombinant virus work with computer modelling and protein binding experiments, and that we conduct any bat coronavirus culture at BSL-3.”
Matt Ridley, co- author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, said the restrictions were a “big admission” that the earlier research had been potentially dangerous. He added:
Rather than quietly tiptoeing away from such research, it would be better if governments got together and agreed a policy. It’s no good just saying in the case of one fundee, ‘please don’t go virus hunting and fiddle with the genes of potentially pandemic pathogens in live form’ we should have an explicit policy. What is the British Government doing about this, for example?
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