The claim: The Obama administration gave $3.7 million to a research institute in Wuhan, China

The origins of the coronavirus have become an increasingly hot-button issue, allowing conspiracy theories to gain traction online and among high-profile officials.  

Claims that the U.S. government helped fund research into coronaviruses began to spread after the Daily Mail reported it obtained documents, which “show the Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan – funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government.”

The report gained traction on social media, while the claim was repeated by high-profile political figures. 

“For years, the US government has been funding cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which may have contributed to the global spread of COVID-19,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., tweeted on April 13. Gaetz later praised President Donald Trump on Fox News for "committing to end this America Last grant given to labs in Wuhan by the Obama administration!"

During an April 17 press conference, a Newsmax reporter asked Trump about the grant money. "We will end that grant very quickly,” Trump said. “It was made a number of years ago. Who was president then, I wonder?"

Social media posts insinuated that any such research was linked to the current pandemic.

“We are discovering that the US government unconstitutionally provided a $3.7 million grant to the #Wuhan lab in #China that many are pointing to as the source of the current virus scamdemic,” an April 13 Instagram post from @freedom_faction reads.

“WELL WELL WELL IN 2015 OBAMA GAVE THE CHINESE LAB IN WUHAN 3.7 M GRANT to study the corona virus WHAT A COINCIDENCE !!!” a Facebook user wrote on April 19. The post has over 55,000 shares.

In an April 21 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accused the Chinese government of covering up its involvement in the virus’s origins. “This evidence is circumstantial, to be sure, but it all points toward the Wuhan labs,” the senator wrote.

“Why did the US (NIH) in 2017 give $3.7m to the Wuhan Lab in China? Such grants were prohibited in 2014,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani tweeted on April 26.

The claims that the Obama administration funded coronavirus research appear to be referencing a grant provided by the National Institutes of Health to EcoHealth Alliance, a research group that tracks emerging diseases. The grant is directly overseen by the NIH and it continued under the Trump administration until it was recently rescinded.

EcoHealth Alliance and coronavirus research

The EcoHealth Alliance is a nongovernmental research group that focuses on emerging diseases caused by human and animal interactions. The National Institutes of Health has consistently funded the organization for projects since at least 2002.

In 2014, the NIH approved a grant to EcoHealth Alliance designated for research into “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.” The project involved collaborating with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study coronaviruses in bats and the risk of potential transfer to humans. 

The original five-year grant was reapproved by the Trump administration in July 2019. In total, $3,378,896 in NIH funding was directed from the government to the project.

The project, which was established “to understand what factors allow coronaviruses, including close relatives to SARS, to evolve and jump into the human population,” has yielded 20 scientific reports on how zoonotic diseases may transfer from bats to humans.

Over the course of the two grants approved by the NIH for EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute received about $600,000 from the NIH, according to Robert Kessler, a spokesperson for EcoHealth Alliance. The funding was a fee for the collection and analysis of viral samples.

For the grant approved in 2014, about $133,000 was sent to the institute in the first four years with around $66,000 coming in the last year. For the second grant approved in 2019, about $76,000 was budgeted for the Wuhan Institute, though no money was actually sent prior to the grant's termination.

“It's hard to do this work in other countries. Very complicated. It requires a lot of traveling. It would be so convenient if we could do it in our own backyards,” Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, told USA TODAY.

“The viruses that are a high risk to public health are not in the U.S., they are in China. If we want to know anything about the next pandemic, we need to be working in the countries where these viruses are.”

On April 23, the National Institutes of Health informed EcoHealth Alliance that it would no longer receive funding from the agency and that the remainder of its grant had been rescinded.

“NIH can confirm that the grant to EcoHealth Alliance Inc. has been terminated. The grant was for $3.4 million over 6 years distributed across all sites: the primary awardee, EcoHealth Health Alliance Inc. (New York), and sub-awardees, Wuhan Institute of Virology (Wuhan), East China Normal University (Shanghai), the Institute of Pathogen Biology (Beijing), and Duke-NUS Medical School (Singapore),” the NIH said in a statement to USA TODAY. “NIH does not discuss details of the decision-making process regarding specific grant awards.”

The agency also cited a statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which stated the intelligence community was continuing to investigate the origins of COVID-19.

“The U.S. federal government checks whether it is OK to work with places like the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We never work with any lab or organization unless it has been preapproved by the U.S. government and/or its agencies,” Daszak told USA TODAY.

It is not uncommon for the United States to fund research projects in other countries. The NIH annually grants over $32 billion in biomedical research funding to organizations around the world.

The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, the subset of NIH that handles disease research, is funding 8,598 active projects around the world totaling $5,927,849,026. Many of those projects, which vary in their research goals, are taking place in over a dozen countries outside the United States in addition to thousands within the country.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is a state-controlled research institute in Wuhan, China, the city where SARS-CoV-2 likely originated. Established in 2015, the laboratory was China’s first Level 4 biosafety, the highest standard meant to handle highly infectious or otherwise deadly pathogens.

Controversy around the institute’s possible involvement in the origins of the coronavirus continue at the highest levels of the American and Chinese governments. There is no evidence that funding directed by the U.S. government to the Wuhan Institute of Virology helped lead to the current pandemic.

The projects funded by the Obama and Trump administrations produced research that highlighted the risk of an outbreak like SARS-CoV-2 in southern China. The abstract proposal for the project cited concerns that a disease like SARS-CoV, or the earlier SARS outbreak, would arise from the region. 

“Our mission is to understand the origins of pandemics and to help prevent them. What we found was that China is a hot spot for emerging disease,” Daszak said of EcoHealth Alliance’s research efforts. “And when these diseases get into people they then travel on airplanes and the viruses always come to countries that do the most traveling: the U.S. and in Europe. The reason we do this work is to protect public health.”

Our ruling: Partly false

We rate this claim PARTLY FALSE because some of it was not supported by our research. It is misleading to claim that the Obama administration gave funding to a Chinese research institute. It is true that funds were provided to a project where an American research group worked alongside a Chinese organization. But claims that the funding in any way helped produce the current pandemic are unsubstantiated.  Additionally, a total of $3.7 million was not given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, only about $600,000. 

Our fact-check sources:

National Institute of Health, EcoHealth Alliance Inc. Awards by Year National Institute of Health, Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence Awards By Year Intelligence Community Statement on the Origins of COVID-19 National Institute of Health Funding and Grants  National Institute of Health Active Projects National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Map of Active Projects Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence Abstract Proposal

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