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Reporting Risky Research Results

According to a new report in the Wall Street Journal, the National Institutes of Health and a grant recipient, New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, disagree about how the latter reported a potentially high-risk coronavirus study in China.

Earlier this month the NIH asserted that EcoHealth Alliance failed to promptly report the result of a study from 2018 on the risk to humans of coronaviruses circulating in bats in China — a study funded by a $3.4 million NIH grant. Specifically, NIH said that EcoHealth Alliance failed to report unusual results from so-called "gain-of-function" virology experiments, and that the alliance filed an annual report on the grant approximately two years late.

Yesterday, the WSJ reported that the EcoHealth Alliance pushed back on these assertions in a letter to NIH, claiming that it complied with all requirements of the grant and submitted unpublished data to NIH as requested.

The row comes in the midst of an ongoing debate about whether NIH is doing enough to oversee risky research that might result in laboratory accidents such as the escape of a lethal pathogen, WSJ noted. The agency is currently under fire from Congress to be more transparent about its oversight of such research, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regardless of the outcome of this and similar disagreements between the NIH and its grant recipients, high-publicity disagreements like this may have an unintentional consequence: "I worry that virology as a field is becoming demonized," Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Utah, told WSJ.