NIH gives detailed explanation for $3.7 million bat research at center of China mystery

Agency says funds mentioned by Fauci were sent to multiple countries

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 Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a press briefing with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a press briefing with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
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Updated: April 28, 2020 - 11:16pm

Why did U.S. taxpayers spend $3.7 million to investigate bat coronaviruses in Asia?

It's one of the media's mysteries that has endured during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurring plenty of speculation and intrigue. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's chief infectious disease specialist, was the latest to fan the debate when he mentioned the grant during a White House briefing without offering many details.

Officials at the National Institutes of Health and Fauci's own division there, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), say there is far less to the story than meets the eye.

First off, the United States didn't give all the money to China. And secondly, it had nothing to do specifically with COVID-19. Rather, it was a multi-year grant dating back six years to study coronaviruses like Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and others in Asian bats in China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar, officials said.

“The grant you are referencing is a multi-site, multi-country project supporting research that aims to understand what factors allow coronaviruses, including close relatives to SARS, to evolve and jump into the human population and cause disease (called a spillover event)," NIH told Just the News. "Specifically, the project includes studying viral diversity in animal (bats) reservoirs, surveying people that live in high-risk communities for evidence of bat-coronavirus infection, and conducting laboratory experiments to analyze and predict which newly-discovered viruses pose the greatest threat to human health.”

NIAID, under Fauci’s leadership, has supported six studies of bats and their connection to coronavirus. “The $3.7million dollar figure is the total funding over 6 years to all sites, which include China,” NIH explained. 

All six studies have been completed since 2014, except for one that is still in progress until June 30. That last study costs $661,980. NIAID has been the administrative sponsor, and Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance has been the project leader for all six studies. 

The current open study’s summary states: “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence Novel zoonotic, bat-origin CoVs are a significant threat to global health and food security, as the cause of SARS in China in 2002, the ongoing outbreak of MERS, and of a newly emerged Swine Acute Diarrhea Syndrome in China.”

According to the summary, the team of scientists and researchers previously found that “bats in southern China harbor an extraordinary diversity of SARSr-CoVs, some of which can use human ACE2 to enter cells, infect humanized mouse models causing SARS-like illness, and evade available therapies or vaccines.”

The scientists previously found that people living close to bat habitats are the primary risk groups for spillover. For instance, at one site “diverse SARSr-CoVs exist that contain every genetic element of the SARS-CoV genome, and identified serological evidence of human exposure among people living nearby,” the summary noted. 

Daszak and his team have published 18 peer-reviewed papers, including two in Nature, and a review in Cell. Within their NIH listing there are 100 more related studies to Daszak’s bat research. 

“Yet salient questions remain on the origin, diversity, capacity to cause illness, and risk of spillover of these viruses,” Daszak’s summary said.

In other words, more work needs to be done. 

This sixth and final study is focused on the diversity and distribution of high spill-over risk SARSr-CoVs in bats in southern China, its routes of exposure and potential public health consequences, documents show. When finished it will analyze bat-CoV serology against human-wildlife contact. 

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