2021-06-16 20:59:23 State Department Officials Fought Over Lab Leak Theory
State Department Officials Fought Over Lab Leak Theory
The State Department was embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origins of the coronavirus that is now leaking into public view in the final days of the Trump administration.
In an open letter published on Medium on Thursday, Christopher Ford, former assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, stated that he intervened to prevent the US government from “embarrassing and discrediting” itself by accusing China of deliberately engineering the coronavirus despite the lack of evidence.
Ford told BuzzFeed News that his colleagues were pushing for allegations that China had violated the international Biological Weapons Convention to be included in a State Department report to Congress, which could have triggered a diplomatic crisis with one of the United States’ main global rivals.
It is extremely rare for a former senior State Department official to publish a personal account of recent internal squabbles. However, Ford’s open letter comes amid a heated debate over the so-called lab-leak hypothesis for the emergence of the virus that causes COVID-19. According to the most extreme version of this theory, Chinese scientists engineered SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon.
Ford’s Medium post detailed his increasingly tense relationship with David Asher, a State Department contractor who was leading the department’s investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, and Thomas DiNanno, former acting head of the bureau’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Coordination (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno saw Ford as promoting a preconceived notion that the virus was of natural origin.
According to Ford’s Medium post, DiNanno indicated that the investigation was focusing on “China allegedly violating the Biological Weapons Convention by creating the virus.” “They seemed to believe that COVID-19 was a botched biological weapons (BW) effort — or perhaps even a BW agent deliberately unleashed upon the world,” he added.
“They appeared to be approaching this from a biological weapons standpoint,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “If you pushed back on whether there was evidence to support a biological weaponry finding over the coronavirus, they got squirrelly, but they seemed to be trying to build a case.”
Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted the claim that China violated the Biological Weapons Convention to be included in the State Department’s annual report to Congress. The report, which is required by US law, details countries’ compliance with international agreements on arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.
“Their legal arguments sounded fairly flimsy to me. “They never presented evidence of actual [bioweapons] work,” Ford said, adding that his colleagues argued that China should have been found in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention for failing to fully answer questions about the COVID-19 crisis.
Ford also claimed in his open letter that Miles Yu, a military historian and China policy expert, told DiNanno that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to keep the department’s bioweapons experts and the intelligence community out of the investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Donald Trump and Pompeo have claimed to have evidence that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China, since the spring of 2020.
Yu denied Pompeo’s claim that he tried to prevent experts from reviewing the investigation. “AVC’s investigation was by no means a rogue and covert operation — it collaborated with our national science labs, world-renowned scientists of serious but differing opinions, and several key intelligence agencies,” Yu told BuzzFeed News via email. “Chris Ford is spinning a false narrative to conceal his extreme hostility toward any worthwhile science-based inquiry supported and encouraged by Secretary Pompeo.”
Asher also disputed Ford’s version of events. “I was surprised that Ford didn’t have an investigation underway when I arrived, so I set about investigating possible Chinese violations of the [Biological Weapons Convention].” “Work that should be continuing in AVC,” he wrote in an email.
DiNanno did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions, instead referring us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.
The debate over the virus’s origins has heated up since late March, when a joint WHO-China report came up empty-handed but ruled out a lab leak as “extremely unlikely.” This prompted the United States and 13 other countries to issue a statement calling for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free of interference and undue influence.”
On May 26, President Joe Biden announced a 90-day intelligence review to investigate whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to humans or was released in a lab accident. In a phone call with a senior Chinese official on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed China to allow more research into the origins of the coronavirus by WHO experts.
Leading scientists have also recently called for more research into the origins of COVID-19, writing in the journal Science that “the two theories were not given balanced consideration” in the WHO-China study.
Ford is a conservative with a track record of being hawkish on China’s threats to the United States. His open letter was prompted by his former colleagues’ mischaracterization of him as being inherently opposed to the idea that the coronavirus might have escaped from a lab.
“I strongly supported investigating the ‘lab-leak’ hypothesis, which clearly is a real possibility,” Ford wrote on Medium. “But I’m not saying this just now. I said it myself at the time. Quite a bit.”
The lab-leak hypothesis is a constellation of ideas centered on the origins of COVID-19, rather than a single unified theory.
Given a history of mistakes at virology labs around the world, as well as China’s lack of full transparency, many scientists accept that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wild animals and accidentally released from a lab in Wuhan. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where a team led by Shi Zhengli cataloged potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats, has received international attention.
More elaborate versions of the theory assume that scientists at the WIV or another city lab were conducting well-intended but risky “gain of function” experiments, genetically modifying a bat coronavirus to study the changes that would make it more likely to infect humans.
Shi has been singled out for suspicion because she previously worked on related experiments with Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The spike protein from one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which it uses to latch on to the cells it infects, was spliced into another coronavirus that had been adapted to infect mice by Baric’s team.
Shi has denied conducting any similar gain-of-function experiments since the 2015 study was published. However, due to the secrecy surrounding research at the WIV and other labs, speculation about this possibility continues.
The most extreme theory, which most experts dismiss as a conspiracy theory, is that Chinese military scientists deliberately engineered SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a bioweapon.
Ford accuses DiNanno of “dragging his feet” in getting the bioweapon claims vetted by the intelligence community and scientific experts in his Medium post. However, on January 7, this year, the State Department convened an online meeting involving scientists including Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who has repeatedly argued that the lab-leak theory deserves thorough investigation.
They heard from Steven Quay, CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who conducted a statistical analysis claiming that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab “beyond reasonable doubt.” According to Vanity Fair, Baric criticized Quay’s presentation, pointing out that his calculations ignored the large number of bat coronaviruses that are still unknown to science.
“[H]is statistical analysis is crippled by the fact that we have essentially no data to support key model inputs,” Ford wrote in a summary of the meeting sent to State Department colleagues the next day. Critically, we lack information on the vast majority of bat coronaviruses found in the wild.” Ford resigned from the State Department on the same day, having previously announced his intention to do so.
“On the contrary, we don’t need to know every bat coronavirus genome to understand the likelihood of a zoonotic [natural] vs. lab origin,” DiNanno responded later. We simply need to reliably estimate the number of bat coronaviruses and factor this into our weighting of current bat coronavirus knowledge.”
Requests for comment from Baric and Relman went unanswered.
Quay defended his statistical analysis in an email to BuzzFeed News, claiming that it has been viewed over 160,000 times online. “No substantive criticism of my work has been received,” he stated. “My impression of the meeting was that they were attempting to dismiss me as quickly as possible so that they could write their report and move on to something else.”
Pompeo’s State Department issued a “fact sheet” on WIV activities on January 15, criticizing China’s secrecy surrounding COVID-19.
Instead, it stated that the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses,” citing intelligence reports.
“For many years, the United States has publicly raised concerns about China’s past biological weapons work, which Beijing has neither documented nor demonstrably eliminated, despite its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention,” according to the fact sheet. It also stated that the WIV has been working on classified research for the Chinese military since 2017.
However, the statement did not claim that SARS-CoV-2 was the result of Chinese bioweapons research.