The Joe Biden administration closed the US State Department’s investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But as the pandemic recedes in the United States, there is renewed interest by the scientific and journalistic communities about the origins of the virus and whether it could have escaped from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). So, a day later, the president opened a new investigation.
The flip-flop came amid Senator Rand Paul’s claim at a Senate committee hearing on the Covid-19 pandemic that the US collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China to make a more deadly, transmittable coronavirus. That’s putting the Chinese lab leak theory, which Beijing vigorously denies, back at the forefront of the Covid-19 origin debate.
Based on papers published by WIV on the scientific work of Dr Shi Zhengli, the US government investigators have some catching up to do. In 2015, Dr Shi – popularly known as the “bat lady” – published a paper entitled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses show potential for human emergence.”
Her colleagues on the study included American researchers associated with the University of North Carolina’s Department of Cell Biology and may be related to work funded by the US government.
It is possible, although we don’t know, that Dr Shi and her team successfully converted a coronavirus, specifically SARS-like virus SHCO14-CoV, from bats to other animals and not only mice. It is also possible, but not proven, that the new virus quickly spread to other animals and then to lab workers, three of whom became sick in November 2019, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.
This is known as “gain of function” research, which is considered by the US to very dangerous. Between 2014 and 2017, gain of function research, which had been actively subsidized by The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies, was suspended in the US.
Slightly later, in 2019, the US temporarily closed some laboratories, including the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, over safety issues.
Mistakes and errors in labs
According to the CDC: “The two breaches [at Fort Detrick] reported by USAMRIID to the CDC demonstrated a failure of the Army laboratory to ‘implement and maintain containment procedures sufficient to contain select agents or toxins’ that were made by operations in biosafety Level 3 and 4 laboratories …”
Level 4 is, in theory, the most secure type of laboratory known today; China’s WIV is also a Level 4 lab. But not all the Wuhan laboratory followed Level 4 standards and there are, as Fort Detrick shows, lapses that need to be accounted for.
In fact, the same kind of lapses that happened at Fort Detrick, which centered on waste treatment, also happened at the Wuhan lab.
Furthermore, Fort Detrick was working with other American and foreign labs, which may have included Chinese facilities. For example, Fort Detrick was connected to Canada’s National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, which was thoroughly penetrated by the Chinese, including at least one known member of China’s biowarfare community.
According to Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper: “One of the Chinese researchers, Feihu Yan, from the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Academy of Military Medical Sciences, worked for a period of time at the Winnipeg lab, a Level 4 facility equipped to handle some of the world’s deadliest diseases.”
There were at least seven Chinese scientists at the lab. Two of them, “Xiangguo Qiu and her biologist husband, Keding Cheng, were fired in January (2021) after the Canadian Security Intelligence Service … recommended that their security clearances be removed on national security grounds,” (allegedly for sending samples of deadly viruses to the Wuhan lab).
On at least one occasion, Qiu, and probably others, visited the Fort Detrick Laboratory. The details are not known, but it can be reasonably surmised that the Winnipeg Lab and Fort Detrick were cooperating, and this cooperation might have included Wuhan.
Was Canada a weak link?
Given Fort Detrick’s security level, further investigation is essential.
It also begs the question of Canada giving Chinese scientists, including at least one from the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences, top secret clearances.
The US and Canada, as part of the North American Defense Sharing Agreement, share classified information, which means there is a strong possibility that some classified American information made its way to Winnipeg and then to Wuhan or elsewhere in China.
Not only does WIV need further investigation, but so do American institutions including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the CDC and Fort Detrick.
In 2017 and 2018, the US did at least two inspections of the Wuhan Laboratory. That raises the question of why did a US inspection team gain entry multiple times to a sensitive Chinese laboratory?
The answer seems to be that the Americans had special status because of high-level, top-secret cooperation between the US, China and other partners (eg, Canada).
Top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci has said it would have been “almost a dereliction of our duty” if the NIH had not worked with China to study coronaviruses and “collaborate” with “very respectable Chinese scientists.”
“Respectable scientists” working for the Chinese government. That’s another avenue for investigation.
International collaboration suggests the US may have halted gain of function research because it was easier and less politically risky to let China do it. China has lower legal standards – try litigating in China if you have any doubt – and, as Fauci said, the US government funded Chinese labs and happily published papers by Chinese scientists.
Those papers today give us a partial record of what the Chinese with the CDC and NIH – and perhaps even the US Army – were up to.
The CIA changes course
The US intelligence community had to know all of this, and a lot more.
But the CIA and other senior American officials, including James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, insisted that Covid-19 did not come from the Wuhan Laboratory but was zoonotic, namely that it was transmitted in nature by animals.
Today the CIA appears to have tentatively reversed course as American scientists press for more information.
A proper investigation would have to ask why the US would trust China, knowing how sloppy the Chinese are about food and safety standards. The faulty ventilators, Covid-19 test kits and N-95 masks for physicians and health workers that were sent abroad by China after the outbreak of the epidemic illustrated this clearly for the world to see.
But beyond sloppiness, it seems the US decided to fund and shift dangerous research to Chinese labs run by the Chinese state. The Biden administration erred in closing the investigation and is right to have opened a new one.