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Trump administration cuts funding for coronavirus researcher, jeopardizing possible COVID-19 cure

Coronavirus research upended by politics
How dishonest politics upended a coronavirus researcher's funding 13:23

Peter Daszak is a scientist whose work is helping in the search for a COVID-19 cure. So why did the president just cancel Daszak's funding? It's the kind of politics which might seem ill-advised in a health crisis. President Trump is blaming China's government for the pandemic. The outbreak was first detected in the city of Wuhan. The administration has said, at times, the virus is man-made or that, if it's natural, it must have leaked out of a Chinese government lab. Both the White House and the Chinese Communist Party have been less than honest. And so, in China, and the U.S., the work of scientists like Peter Daszak is being undercut by pandemic politics.

Peter Daszak is a British-born American Ph.D. who's spent a career discovering dangerous viruses in wildlife, especially bats.

In 2003, in Malaysia, he warned 60 Minutes a pandemic was coming. 

Peter Daszak in 2003 interview: What worries me the most is that we are going to miss the next emerging disease, that we're suddenly going to find a SARS virus that moves from one part of the planet to another, wiping out people as it moves along.

Peter Daszak

In the 17 years since that prophecy, Peter Daszak became president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance.

Peter Daszak: We're a nonprofit research organization that focuses on understanding where the pandemics come from, what's the risk of future pandemics and can we get in between this pandemic and the next one and disrupt it and stop it.

In China, EcoHealth has worked for 15 years with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Together they've catalogued hundreds of bat viruses, research that is critical right now. 

Peter Daszak: The breakthrough drug, Remdesivir, that seems to have some impact on COVID-19 was actually tested against the viruses we discovered under our NIH research funding.

Scott Pelley: And so that testing would not have been possible--

Peter Daszak: No, it would not.

Scott Pelley: --if it hadn't been for the work that you did with the NIH grant?

Peter Daszak: Correct. 

But his funding from the NIH, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, was killed, two weeks ago, by a political disinformation campaign targeting China's Wuhan Institute.

On April 14, Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz claimed China's Wuhan Institute had, quote, "birthed a monster." Gaetz is a vigorous defender of the president. He's been under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for allegedly threatening a witness against Mr. Trump and he led a protest to delay impeachment testimony. 

Matt Gaetz
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, speaks during a rally hosted by FreedomWorks on Sept. 26, 2018, at the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Getty

Matt Gaetz on "Tucker Carlson Tonight": The NIH gives this $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, they then advertise that they need coronavirus researchers. Following that, coronavirus erupts in Wuhan.

There never was a $3.7 million U.S. grant to the Wuhan lab. But, the falsehood spread like a virus, in the White House, and without verification, in the briefing room. 

Reporter in White House press briefing: There's also another report that the NIH, under the Obama administration, in 2015 gave that lab $3.7 million in a grant. Why would the U.S. give a grant like that to China?

President Trump: The Obama administration gave them a grant of $3.7 million? I've been hearing about that. And we've instructed that if any grants are going to that area – we're looking at it, literally, about an hour ago, and also early in the morning. We will end that grant very quickly. 

That grant was to Peter Daszak's U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance for disease prevention it does throughout the world. His work was considered so important that, last year, the grant was reauthorized and increased by the Trump administration.

Why it matters that the NIH canceled a coronavirus research grant 06:05

Daszak had been spending about $100,000 a year collaborating with the Wuhan lab. 

Peter Daszak: I can't just show up in China and say, "Hi, I wanna work on your viruses." I have to do this through the correct channels. So, what we do is we talk to NIH, and they approve the people we can work with in China. And that happened. And our collaboration with Wuhan was preapproved by NIH. 

Scott Pelley: What is the theory of the work that you've done with the Wuhan lab?

Peter Daszak: Well, the idea is that we know that viruses that affect people and pandemics tend to come from wildlife. So, our strategy is to go to the wildlife source, find out where the viruses are, and try and shift behaviors like hunting and killing wildlife that would lead to the next outbreak. We also get the information into vaccine and drug developers so they can design better drugs.

The Wuhan Institute is internationally respected. Two years ago, a team from the U.S. Embassy visited. That team sent a cable to Washington, concerned that one lab in the complex had a serious shortage of trained investigators. But the cable, first reported by the Washington Post, emphasized the Wuhan Institute is "critical to future… outbreak prediction and prevention." EcoHealth's work with Wuhan ended one week after Mr. Trump's briefing room pledge, when the NIH revoked the grant.

Scott Pelley: They gave you no reason?

Peter Daszak: They said it was canceled for convenience and it doesn't fit within the scope of NIH's priorities right now.

Scott Pelley: And yet it was a high priority when the grant was reissued in 2019?

Peter Daszak: Yeah it's definitely puzzling. I mean, this grant received an incredibly high-priority score. It was in the top 3% of grants they reviewed. And that's unusual.

Maureen Miller

Maureen Miller: I was shocked. I was really, really surprised. 

Maureen Miller is a Ph.D. epidemiologist at Columbia University who has collaborated with EcoHealth and Wuhan. 

Maureen Miller: It stops the research that's essential to understanding where pandemics like the one we're going through, where they start. 

Scott Pelley: How often are NIH grants terminated in this way?

Maureen Miller: This is the first one I've ever heard of. When they terminate an NIH grant, and it's not something that's usually taken lightly, it is for cause. There's fraud involved at some level. There is either manipulation of the data, you're putting your participants in harm's way, or your data are fraudulent. 

Scott Pelley: And none of those things have been alleged with EcoHealth?

Maureen Miller: Absolutely not. None.

The National Institutes of Health, in its mission statement, says it exemplifies "the highest level of scientific integrity and public accountability." But it wouldn't tell us why the grant was cancelled or whether anything like it had happened before. The NIH told us to direct questions about the origin of the virus to the director of national intelligence.

The Chinese Communist Party has also blocked the truth. In the earliest days, the doctor in Wuhan who discovered the outbreak was silenced by local officials. He later died of COVID-19. In February, the Chinese did allow a visit by an international team of experts including American scientists.

White House Coronavirus Task Force Holds Daily Briefing
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks as President Donald Trump listens during a news briefing at the White House on the coronavirus outbreak, March 20, 2020, in Washington, DC. Getty

President Trump at State of the Union on 2/4/20: We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China.

Initially, President Trump praised China. But in the following weeks, testing in the U.S. failed to catch up to the need, vital equipment was short, bodies filled refrigerated trailers, and science was continuously challenged.

President Trump at 4/23/20 briefing: Then I see disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute, and is there a way we can do something like that by injection?

As the U.S. led the world in illness and death, the White House moved the focus to the Chinese government.

Last Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pomepo attempted to resurrect a debunked theory that the virus was man-made in China. 

Mike Pompeo on ABC's "This Week": Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.

He did have reason. Days before, the director of national intelligence said there was "wide scientific consensus" the virus was not man-made. 

Martha Raddatz on ABC's "This Week": Your Office of the DNI says the consensus, the scientific consensus was not man-made or genetically modified.

Mike Pompeo on ABC's "This Week": That's right. I agree with that. 

The same day Pompeo tried to have it both ways, President Trump repeated the theory of a Chinese lab accident. 

President Trump at Fox News town hall: I think they made a horrible mistake and they didn't want to admit it.

Elodie Ghedin

The administration has offered no evidence of an accident or genetic engineering. Dr. Elodie Ghedin is studying the genome of the virus in her lab at New York University.

Elodie Ghedin: People have been saying that's an engineered virus. And it's not. And we know that by looking at the genetic information, looking at the code. And the code tells you a lot. 

Human-engineered viruses have common and obvious genetic components, including the virus's overall molecular structure called its backbone.

Elodie Ghedin: If a virus had been engineered, it would've used the backbones that we know. And there's none of that in that virus. And let's say it was a brand-new backbone. Well, it wouldn't look like what it's looking like, because we can find every piece of that virus. We can find these pieces in other very similar viruses that circulate in the wild. From the genetic information, it's clearly not an engineered virus.

Elodie Ghedin and most experts believe the virus, officially called SARS-CoV-2, passed from a wild animal into humans, perhaps in the wild animal market in Wuhan. Many early cases were traced to this market and a market like it was where the SARS virus jumped into a human in 2003. 

Elodie Ghedin: A lot of these coronaviruses are found in bats. But we haven't found the exact match. We did find a close match in pangolins. It's an anteater. It's a wildlife that's been traded. People, you know, will consume its meat. But they also use in Chinese medicine, its scales.

Scott Pelley: Is there a way to know that this virus, SARS-CoV-2 emerged from the wild into the human population? Or has that not been proven yet?

Peter Daszak: Well, I'm a scientist. And what I do is I look at the evidence around a hypothesis. There is a huge amount of evidence that these viruses repeatedly emerge into people from wild animals in rural areas through things like hunting and eating wildlife. There is zero evidence that this virus came out of a lab in China. 

Scott Pelley: Does the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to your knowledge, have this virus in its inventory?

Peter Daszak: No.

Scott Pelley: Why do you say so?

Peter Daszak: The closest known relative is one that's different enough that it is not SARS-CoV-2. So, there's just no evidence that anybody had it in the lab anywhere in the world prior to the outbreak. 

Matt Gaetz on "Tucker Carlson Tonight": I have called on Secretary Azar to immediately halt this grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They have not been honest and at worst, negligent to the point of many, many deaths throughout the world. 

Matt Gaetz wears a gas mask on the floor of the House in early March

Dishonest and negligent allegations have now ended EcoHealth's carefully reviewed research designed to stop pandemics. Representative Matt Gaetz wore a gas mask on the floor of the House to lampoon the crisis. This was back in the beginning of March, weeks before masks were common. Peter Daszak, whose researchers wear masks to shield them from viruses in the wild, says his team is now facing layoffs. 

Peter Daszak: This politicization of science is really damaging. You know, the conspiracy theories out there have essentially closed down communication between scientists in China and scientists in the U.S. We need that communication in an outbreak to learn from them how they control it so we can control it better. It's sad to say, but it will probably cost lives. By sort of narrow-mindedly focusing in on ourselves, or on labs, or on certain cultural politics, we miss the real enemy. 

Produced by Ashley Velie. Associate producer, Dina Zingaro. Broadcast associate, Ian Flickinger. Edited by April Wilson.

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