NIH’s bat vivarium for virology studies in Colorado sparks concern from residents, academics

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is collaborating with Colorado State University (CSU) on a laboratory that will study the potential spread of coronaviruses and other infections from bats to humans.

Local residents and academic experts have expressed opposition to the construction of the lab, claiming it poses an unnecessary risk of leaks to the surrounding region. The NIH and CSU have dismissed the complaints, citing what they say was a transparent approval process with plenty of public notice.

Fox News Digital reached out to the NIH, CSU, protesters and the state governor for information about this contentious construction project.

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The 1,022-square-meter Chiropteran Research Facility is being constructed on the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins and is expected to begin operations in February 2025.

White Coat Waste (WCW), a taxpayer watchdog group that focuses heavily on animal experimentation, has opposed the project since it was announced last year.

“We oppose this new facility because it threatens national security, fiscal responsibility, animals and public health,” White Coat Waste Founder Anthony Bellotti told Fox News Digital. “WCW uncovered an alarming pattern of animal lab accidents at CSU via a Colorado Open Records Act request. We obtained recent records of bat bites, mouse bites, hamster bites, cat scratches and cat bites.”

WCW contributed to a report published earlier this year in the Daily Mail showing CSU staff members were exposed to Zika, rabies, tuberculosis and other dangerous pathogens due to dozens of lab accidents.

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WCW has urged Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to pull funding from the project, citing local opposition to the center and its perceived risks.

“We are encouraging Gov. Jared Polis to defund CSU’s ‘Wuhan West’ lab because Colorado residents and pet owners don’t want to pay $5 million in state taxes for a dangerous virus facility with a recent history of lab leaks,” WCW told Fox News Digital. “WCW’s members in Colorado have told us, repeatedly, that they don’t want to breed bats, abuse animals and play around with potential pandemic pathogens in their own backyard.”

Fox News Digital contacted Polis’ office for comment regarding the lab’s construction. The governor’s office said in a brief statement he is “aware” of the center’s construction and has been informed of safety protocols for the lab. 

“Governor Polis is proud of Colorado’s world-class universities and innovative labs that safely study and provide solutions to challenges facing our country, and the office is aware of this lab at Colorado State University and has been briefed regarding safety protocols,” Polis’ office told Fox News Digital.

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Virology research — especially research into the transmission of viruses from bats to humans — has become an unpalatable subject since American intelligence confirmed that such lab work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China was the most likely origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Fox News last year.

The situation in Colorado is made even more tense by the fact CSU subcontracted the capture and transfer of bat specimens from Bangladesh through EcoHealth Alliance.

EcoHealth Alliance was defunded by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year after the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic found it to have “facilitated gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China without proper oversight, willingly violated multiple requirements of its multimillion-dollar National Institutes of Health grant.”

CSU stands by the planned lab, saying its research into bat-to-human infection is “important to preventing future pandemics.”

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“CSU has redundant biosafety precautions to keep our researchers and our community safe,” a spokesperson for the university told Fox News Digital. “The building will be used to house bats, and scientists will conduct limited research on mild pathogens that do not pose a risk to the community.”

And while locals protest the construction, CSU assured Fox News Digital it followed the proper channels of alerting the public to the project.

“The project solicited public feedback through federal processes and has continued to share information with the community through a paper mailing and a website with the facts,” the CSU spokesperson said.

This was echoed by the NIH, which similarly told Fox News Digital it published proposals and notices beginning in October 2021 “as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.”

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The NIH told Fox News Digital a draft environmental assessment was made available for review to the public “both online and at the Old Town Library in Fort Collins, Colorado, Dec. 18, 2023; it was also published on the CSU Bat Research website.”

The notice of availability for the assessment was also published in the local newspaper, the Coloradoan, Dec. 18, Dec. 20 and Dec. 22. 

“At the end of the 30-day public comment period, no comments were received by either NIH or CSU,” the NIH told Fox News Digital.

Speaking about the track record of CSU and the possibility of lab leaks, the NIH referenced the university’s “more than 15 years” of researching “bats and infectious diseases on its Foothills Campus.”

“The proposed Chiropoteran Resource Facility at CSU is intended to provide additional physical resources to study bats and how they transmit pathogens as a vital step in pandemic preparedness,” the NIH told Fox News Digital. “Both CSU and the National Institutes of Health, which are jointly funding construction of the building, conducted, separately, required environmental assessments of the project to evaluate and verify that established biosafety controls mitigated all environmental, health and safety concerns.”

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The NIH is spending $8.4 million on the virology lab, while CSU is contributing $5.1 million. 

Construction remains ongoing, and the lab is scheduled to be completed in February 2025.