In an open letter, 77 American Nobel laureates urged the U.S. government to launch an investigation into the decision by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cancel a grant for a study of how the novel coronavirus moves from animals to humans.
"We believe that this action sets a dangerous precedent by interfering in the conduct of science and jeopardizes public trust in the process of awarding federal funds for research," says the letter, which was released May 21 and composed by pre-eminent scientists in medicine, chemistry and physics.
The grant in question was awarded to disease ecologist Peter Daszak, who leads EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based international nonprofit devoted to the study of emerging infectious diseases.
For many years, the group has been a key collaborator with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which became the focal point of a conspiracy theory pushed by some in the Trump administration that claims the coronavirus was accidentally released by the lab, causing the current COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Nobel recipients' letter, the grant was revoked April 24 after President Donald Trump responded to a question from a reporter who erroneously claimed that the grant awarded millions of dollars to investigators in Wuhan.
Despite the misrepresentation of Daszak's grant and the high relevance of his study to the current pandemic, the NIH informed Daszak and his colleagues that the grant was being terminated because the "NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities."
Such explanations are "preposterous" under the circumstances, the letter said.
The open letter, which was addressed to Alex Azar II, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and NIH head Francis Collins, also highlighted the importance of international collaboration in scientific research, including Daszak's work.
"Their work depends on productive collaborations with scientists in other countries, including scientists in Wuhan, China, where the current pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus arose. Now is precisely the time we need to support this kind of research if we aim to control the pandemic and prevent subsequent ones," the letter continued.
In a statement posted on its website, EcoHealth Alliance said the research terminated by the NIH helped in designing vaccines and drugs to protect people from COVID-19 and other coronavirus threats.
The genetic sequences of two bat coronaviruses that researchers discovered with this grant have been used to test the Daszak breakthrough antiviral drug remdesivir, the statement said.
In an interview with CBS News, Daszak said that the $3.7 million grant was not given to the Wuhan institute but to EcoHealth Alliance.
Gerald Keusch, a former director of NIH's Fogarty International Center, told the journal Science that the NIH's move is counterproductive to the understanding of the current pandemic and avoiding future viral outbreaks.
"This is cutting off your nose to spite your face. This is the worst kind of thing that political interference can cause in a democracy," Keusch said.
The Nobelists' letter came just a day after the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), one of the largest molecular life science societies in the world, published a similar letter of protest directed to the NIH.
In the letter, the ASBMB, which represents "tens of thousands of members of the American biomedical research enterprise", said the decision by the NIH politicizes science and seems to be a reaction to a theory about the origins of the COVID-19 virus, which the U.S. intelligence community has publicly repudiated.
"EcoHealth Alliance at one point collaborated with a lab in Wuhan, China, which has recently been at the center of rumors about the origin of the pandemic. The overall goal of EcoHealth Alliance's research project is to study coronavirus transmission from species to species. But the purpose of the research project has been conflated with these rumors. This is worrisome," the letter said.
"International collaboration has propelled the American research enterprise to achieve vital innovations and discoveries; it is the gold standard for the scientific community. The United States is a beacon for the best and brightest minds, consistently attracting top scientists from around the world. However, with this incident, international collaboration is being portrayed as a threat," it added.
"Our aim with this effort is to stand up for a scientific enterprise that should be free of political influence on sound scientific research. This grant was peer reviewed, led to research that has numerous publications in scholarly journals, and was competitively renewed just last year," said Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for the ASBMB, in a statement.
"The continued politicization of science during this pandemic crisis is an alarming trend that is risking not only the integrity of science, but also the lives of citizens. Scientific research must remain clear of the partisanship that divides the nation and must be the foundation for sound policymaking during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic," Corb added.