TOKYO -- The news was sudden, and stunning. The premier U.S. agency for biomedical research cut funding last month to a New York-based lab that works with researchers worldwide on infectious diseases, and the motivation appeared to be political rather than scientific.
The National Institutes of Health severed the funding for the EcoHealth Alliance roughly one week after President Donald Trump was asked about the nonprofit's link to a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan where the novel coronavirus is claimed to have originated. There had been American media reports about the lab and the U.S. funding it receives.
EcoHealth works with companies such as Johnson & Johnson as well as universities in and outside the U.S. to research infectious diseases. The group had received NIH money for 15 years.
The funding cut is widely regarded as a political move by Trump, who blames China for the spread of the outbreak. EcoHealth had received about $3.7 million from the U.S. government over five years, American news outlets report, about 10% of which went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology -- including to a team led by a researcher named Shi Zhengli.
Shi has been in the spotlight since the early stages of the outbreak, over claims that the novel coronavirus was leaked out of her lab. She vehemently denied these allegations in interviews with Scientific American magazine and the South China Morning Post, noting that the genetic sequence of the virus responsible for the pandemic does not match those found in her lab.
Still, speculation continues to swirl. The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials raised alarms over inadequate safety controls at the Wuhan institute during their visit in 2018.
Shi, nicknamed "bat woman," has studied coronaviruses carried by China's bat colonies since the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. She discovered a coronavirus similar to the one responsible for SARS in 2013, proving that the outbreak originated from bats. Her findings were detailed in Scientific American.
The scientist also was among the first to identify a probable link between the current pandemic and bats, with her team publishing an article in Nature magazine Feb. 3.
Shi had predicted a "reemergence" of SARS caused by bat-borne viruses in a 2015 joint paper with Ralph Baric, a leading coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina. The paper, published in Nature Medicine, showed that a chimeric virus Shi and Baric created from strains found in mice and bats resisted antibodies and vaccines developed against SARS.
Zoonotic outbreaks like SARS and Ebola have grown more common in recent years, becoming a key public health challenge worldwide. Many scientists strongly criticized the U.S. funding cut, arguing that research into infectious diseases is now more important than ever.
University of Tokyo professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who studied how bird flus can be transmitted to mammals, emphasized the growing importance of research into new infectious diseases. He rejected claims that the new coronavirus could have leaked from the Wuhan institute, citing several layers of security for dangerous pathogens.
"We should instead applaud [Baric and Shi] for predicting the latest outbreak," Kawaoka said.
"The bat coronavirus sequences identified at the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] were used in lab tests of the drug remdesivir, currently the only scientifically supported treatment for COVID-19," Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief for Science magazine, also wrote in a recent editorial.
Many in the scientific community, as well as U.S. intelligence, also have rejected the claim that the coronavirus responsible for the current outbreak was made in a lab.