A Quick Thought about NIH Collaborative Mechanisms

A couple weeks ago, Vanity Fair had an article about the path by which Peter Daszak wound up with the NIH funding to sponsor viral research here and in China–which has been seized on by both the lab-leak hypothesis advocates, along with their co-travelers who believe SARS-CoV-2 was designed by the Chinese government (or perhaps Ukraine and Hunter Biden*). It’s written in a very sensationalist style**, but it does provide a good history of how Daszak got his funding.

The real story here has to do with NIH collaborative funding mechanisms. I’m using collaborative funding mechanisms as a catch-all term as there are several different funding pathways for these, but essentially what happens is that NIH gives a bunch of money to a group which then acts as a combination funding agency-oversight group. It’s supposed to allow more direction and (counterintuitively***) flexibility in research.

In my experience with and around these things, if there isn’t considerable management and oversight by a knowledgeable NIH program officer with domain expertise, collaborative funding mechanisms can go off the rails very quickly. Many of the principal investigators running these (PIs) don’t have the oversight experience or the administrative chops to do so successfully. In addition, the data often are not handled well. In the case of the pulled sequencing data from WIV the Vanity Fair article discusses, it seems Waszak never actually had possession of the raw sequence data himself, even though he had funded the acquisition of that sequence data****. That’s…not good. Also, in my experience, sequencing data are the easy part: the hard part is the experimental data. Other than requiring copies of lab notebooks, the PI has to take their results at face value: if the subgrantees claim they did X or determined Y, the PI doesn’t really have a way to verify that.

And in all of this, the overseeing program officer is one step (at best) from the PI.

My hunch is that one consequence of this is that collaborative mechanisms are going to be really hard to fund here on out.

*If you have no idea what that refers to, you’re better off not knowing. Trust me. It’s a huge pile of crazy.

**For example, if one group published a paper the day after a group they disagreed with did, the later group ‘rushed’ to publish, when there’s little evidence that happened. Very dramatic though!

***Rather than having a large panel of experts review competing grants, some of which aren’t related to the topic at hand (but can still get the funding), followed by a couple layers of NIH approval, the grantee has far more discretion and choice than the typical NIH program officer.

****I think. It’s unclear to what extent the pulled data were funded by NIH.

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1 Response to A Quick Thought about NIH Collaborative Mechanisms

  1. John says:

    From the Vanity Fair article: “Garry wrote of the `stunning’ composition of the furin cleavage site: `I really can’t think of a plausible natural scenario where you get from the bat virus or one very similar to it to [SARS-CoV-2] where you insert exactly 4 amino acids 12 nucleotide[s] that all have to be added at the exact same time to gain this function…. I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature.'”

    Is there any truth to this?

    The article also mentions China’s obstruction of investigation of the origins of the virus, and crackdown on doctors raising the alarms. I am aware of certain cases in China, and have previously heard of jailings and other punishment.

    Are we talking about the accidental or premature release of a weaponized virus? A viral weapon?

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