News broke yesterday that the Trump administration is defunding a research program studying bat-human virus transmission, a probable cause of the current pandemic. The Ecohealth Alliance, which develops science-based solutions to prevent pandemics and promote conservation, was receiving the funding to conduct this research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH normally only cuts research funding when they find that an award recipient has violated some form of research integrity (i.e., plagiarized, falsified results).
The grant funding seems to have been cut after reports claimed that funds from Ecohealth Alliance’s NIH grant were distributed to a lab in Wuhan, China—a lab that has been the center of a conspiracy theory that it was responsible for the release of the coronavirus from its facilities. When a Newsmax reporter asked President Trump about the NIH funding being distributed to the Wuhan lab on April 17 he said, “We will end that grant very quickly.” The president of the Ecohealth Alliance has stated that no funds were ever distributed to the Wuhan lab.
I find this to be a deeply disturbing decision since we are currently experiencing a pandemic due to a virus that is suspected to have been transferred from an animal, most likely a bat. The Ecohealth Alliance published a study in March this year identifying factors in rural communities in southern China that make a viral spillover more likely. This type of research is needed to better understand what makes virus transfers from animals to humans more likely.
Cutting this research makes no sense at all. Why defund research that the current pandemic proves we need? Viruses that spread from animals to humans are often deadlier than those humans have co-evolved with. I am flabbergasted.
But maybe I should not be shocked, because in 2019 the Trump administration also defunded the PREDICT program, which was conducting similar research into viruses that move from animals into humans. The PREDICT program was being implemented by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
These programs both try to identify viruses in animals that could spill over and become a virus in the human population. That is critically important research that could help us prevent future pandemics—here’s why:
- The majority of pandemics are a result of a virus leaping from an animal to a human. Sixty-percent of all infectious diseases have likely originated from human contact with animals.
- An estimated 1.6 million unknown viruses exist in birds and mammals—700,000 of which could pose a risk to the human population.
- Human behaviors—population increase, modern-day agriculture, land-use change—are increasing viral loads in many animal species, making it more likely for a virus to jump from one of them to us.
- The same human behaviors listed above have resulted in humans interacting with animals more, which also increases the likelihood of an animal virus jumping from them to us.
So unless we change our behaviors, supporting scientists who are searching for pandemic-potential viruses waiting in the dark sounds like a very wise decision.
Not the only research defunded
These programs that were funded to try to stamp out a pandemic are not the only research programs that this administration has cut. Here is a list of other research that could protect public health and our environment that this administration has defunded for political reasons:
- Research that relies on fetal tissue to study, among other things, treatment for diseases like chicken pox, HIV, Alzheimer’s, Zika, and Parkinson’s diseases. The ban on the use of fetal tissue in research has blocked scientists from using the tissue to study treatments for COVID-19.
- A National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) study on the health effects from living near a mountaintop removal coal mining project.
- Another NASEM study aimed to research safety of offshore oil rig workers—many of which are harmed or killed every year likely as a result of lack of adequate inspections.
- The Trump administration cut over $200 million in funding for teen pregnancy prevention and research programs, though it has since been walked back via court orders.
- The National Guideline Clearinghouse database was defunded by the administration in 2018. The database had been operating for 20 years and was considered the go-to resource for finding and understanding science-based medical guidelines.
- The Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment—Tropics program. The ten-year Department of Energy effort to collect data on how climate change will impact the planet’s most vulnerable ecosystems was cut in 2018.
- Thirteen research centers that study the associations between chemical exposures in early childhood and later adverse health outcomes. Some research examples from these centers include: how a policy to phase out flame-retardant chemicals led to a decrease in the level of these chemicals in children; how smoking bans in public areas decreased passive smoking exposure for pregnant women; and, how ambient air pollution can impact DNA in ways that can contribute to asthma.
- The administration cut landscape conservation cooperative funding during 2019. These cooperatives provided a unique service by bringing together a diverse set of stakeholders to collaborate on landscape-level, conservation objectives. No other initiative has the scope or ability to replace this service.
- The National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP) was defunded by the administration during 2018. NREPP was established to screen different psycho-therapy practices and programs to determine which are effective and which are not effective.
In addition to these research program cuts, the administration also is not funding new research on a political basis. It is well known that grant funding at both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior have been politicized. In 2017, public affairs official John Kronkus was vetting grant proposals at the EPA and it was reported that he was on the lookout for any mention of the term “climate change” to eliminate this work from the agency’s competitive grant program.
Please fund scientific research: it saves lives
As coronavirus cases top one million in the US, I hope that our government is thinking about effective ways to prevent such a pandemic in the future. One clear answer is to make sure you have the scientific capacity to research and identify viruses that have pandemic potential. Our government should be funding that work—not defunding it.
Additionally, we should be ensuring that scientists have the resources that they need to study viruses, so that if they result in a pandemic we’re able to quickly develop effective treatments. Even now, the ban on fetal tissue research imposed by this administration is blocking many medical researchers from developing such a treatment.
People are losing their loved ones to this pandemic and the Trump administration needs to reevaluate its investment priorities accordingly. Now is not the time cut research on this coronavirus —now is the time to throw everything we’ve got at it! Let’s research more, not less.