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On April 26, 2020, Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and a staunch ally of U.S. President Donald Trump, purportedly tweeted to criticize the Obama administration for supposedly having given “$3.7 million to the Wuhab lab in China” in 2017 — the site where the COVID-19 coronavirus originated, according to unfounded rumor, or “was created,” according to conspiracy theory.
Some critics were quick to point out that former President Barack Obama was only president for less than three weeks in 2017, as Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017, so Giuliani was effectively criticizing Trump himself:
The above screenshot did reproduce a real tweet from Giuliani. And given that U.S. government funding is typically proposed, approved, budgeted, and appropriated long before it is actually disbursed, Giuliani’s reference to the year 2017 wasn’t necessarily as much of a gaffe as it might have superficially appeared. The former mayor still managed to get plenty wrong in a single tweet, however.
As we noted in a previous article here on Snopes.com, the referenced $3.7 million comprised a series of multiple grants for coronavirus research issued by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases over the course of several years to different entities, of which the Wuhan Institute of Virology was just one:
Between 2014 and 2019, the EcoHealth Alliance was awarded a series of grants totaling approximately $3.7 million by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (a division of the National Institutes of Health) to study the “risk of future coronavirus (CoV) emergence from wildlife using in-depth field investigations across the human-wildlife interface in China.” Only a portion of this money has been used to fund research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, however, and approximately $700,000 of this grant money was awarded under the Trump administration.
Under award number NIAID R01AI110964, NIH also funded studies produced by institutions in the United States, Australia, and Singapore, and the work involving the Wuhan Institute of Virology was an international collaboration with the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance.
While these funds were originally appropriated by the NIH in 2014 during the Obama administration, the most recent payment, in 2019, was authorized by the Trump administration.
Furthermore, such grants were not “prohibited” in 2014. As noted above, the grants questioned by Giuliani were to study the “risk of future coronavirus (CoV) emergence from wildlife.” Back in October 2014, the U.S. had placed a funding moratorium on one specific type of research, gain-of-function (GOF) studies that have “the potential to enhance the pathogenicity or transmissibility of potential pandemic pathogens” and had “raised biosafety and biosecurity concerns, including the potential dual use risks associated with the misuse of the information or products resulting from such research”:
Concerns over so-called “gain-of-function” (GOF) studies that make pathogens more potent or likely to spread in people erupted in 2011, when [virologist Yoshihiro] Kawaoka’s team and Ron Fouchier’s lab at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, announced that they had modified the H5N1 bird flu virus to enable it to spread between ferrets. Such studies could help experts prepare for pandemics, but pose risks if the souped-up pathogen escapes the lab. After a long discussion, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) decided the two studies should be published and federal officials issued new oversight rules for certain H5N1 studies.
But U.S. officials grew uneasy after the publication of new GOF papers and several accidents in U.S. biocontainment labs. In October 2014, they announced an unprecedented “pause” on funding for 21 GOF studies of influenza, MERS, and severe acute respiratory syndrome viruses. NIH eventually exempted some studies found to pose relatively little risk. But eight influenza studies and three MERS projects remained on hold.
The coronavirus research funded between 2014 and 2019 via the grants referenced by Giuliani did not encompass gain-of-function studies and was therefore not “prohibited.” (The gain-of-function funding moratorium was finally lifted in December 2017.)
New York’s former mayor was correct in noting that the Wuhan Institute of Virology did receive some research funding via grants from the NIH, but he erred in all the other details stated or implied in his tweet.