US State Department officials investigate laboratory leak theory

In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department has been caught up in a fierce controversy over China’s role in the origins of the coronavirus now spreading to the public.

In one open letter Posted on Medium on Thursday, Christopher Ford, a former assistant secretary for international security and nuclear weapons non-proliferation, said he intervened to prevent the US government from “discrediting and maligning tiger” by accusing China of intentionally creating the coronavirus – despite having no evidence to offer. case.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ford said his colleagues are pushing to bring charges that China violated the International Convention on Biological Weapons in a State Department report to Congress. , which could trigger a diplomatic crisis with one of the United States’ global chiefs. each other’s opponents.

It is highly unusual for a former senior State Department official to publish a personal account of recent internal disputes. But Ford’s open letter comes amid a fierce debate about the so-called laboratory leak hypothesis about the emergence of the virus that causes COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory holds that Chinese scientists have engineered SARS-CoV-2 as a biological weapon.

Sourcing his account for email put in the public domain through the report of Fox News and Vanity FairFord’s Medium post details his increasingly strained relationship with David Asher, a contractor in the State Department who is running the investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, and Thomas DiNanno, former acting chief of the department’s Firearms Control, Verification and Compliance Department. (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno view Ford as drawing prejudicial conclusions that the virus is of natural origin.

In the Medium post, Ford said that DiNanno signaled that the investigation was focusing on “China’s alleged violation of the Biological Weapons Convention by creating a virus.” He added: “They seem to believe that COVID-19 is a biological weapons (BW) attempt that has gone awry – or possibly even a BW agent intentionally unleashing on the world.”

Ford told BuzzFeed News: “Obviously they appear to be coming here from a biological weapons perspective. “They would be startled if you pushed back whether there is evidence to support the detection of biological weapons on coronavirus, but they seem to be trying to build a case.”

Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to make a claim that China violated the Biological Weapons Convention in a annual report prepared for Congress by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The report, as required by US law, details the countries’ compliance with international agreements on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament.

“Their legal arguments sound pretty weak to me. They never give evidence of reality [bioweapons] Ford said, adding that his colleagues also argued that China should have violated the Biological Weapons Convention by not responding adequately to questions about the COVID-19 crisis. .

In his open letter, Ford also alleges that Miles Yu, a military historian and China policy expert, told DiNanno that former secretary of state Mike Pompeo wanted to keep his biological weapons experts. department and the intelligence community from the department’s investigation. about the origin of the coronavirus. Since the spring of 2020, Donald Trump and Pompeo have claim to have evidence that the virus emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Yu denied allegations that Pompeo sought to prevent experts from reviewing the investigation. “The AVC investigation was by no means a scam and covert operation – it worked in partnership with our national science labs, world-renowned scientists with opinions. serious but different and some of the key organs of the intelligence community,” Yu told BuzzFeed News via email. “Chris Ford is filming a counter-story to cover up his extreme hostility toward any worthy science-based investigation supported and encouraged by Secretary of State Pompeo.”

Asher also objected to Ford’s account. “I was shocked that Ford had no investigation going on when I arrived and started trying to dig into the possible Chinese violations of [Biological Weapons Convention]. Work will be continued in the AVC,” he said by email.

DiNanno did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News, referring us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.

The debate about the origins of the virus has intensified since late March, when a business WHO-China report arrived empty-handed still rates a lab leak as “extremely unlikely.” This prompted the United States and 13 other governments Make a statement calls for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from undue interference and influence.”

On May 26, President Joe Biden revealed that he ordered A 90-day intelligence assessment probed two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to humans or was released in a laboratory accident. And in a call with a senior Chinese official on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken force China to allow WHO experts to do more research on the origin of the coronavirus.

Leading scientists have also recently called for a deeper investigation into the origins of COVID-19, Writing in Science magazine that “the two theories are not considered balanced” in the WHO-China study.

Ford is a conservative with a hawk record about the threats China poses to the United States. What sparked his open letter was that his former colleagues, in his view, misinterpreted him as inherently contrary to the idea that the coronavirus might have escaped the lab. .

“I am strong Supported Ford wrote in the Medium post. “But I’m not just saying this now. I also said that at the time. Great number of.”

The Laboratory Leak Hypothesis is not a single unified theory but a series of surrounding ideas Origin of COVID-19.

Okay slip history at the virology lab around the worldand the lack of adequate transparency from China, many scientists accept that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wildlife and was accidentally released from a laboratory in Wuhan. . Global attention has focused on the Wuhan Virus Institute (WIV), where a team led by Shi Zhengli has cataloged potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats.

More complicated versions of this theory assume that scientists at WIV or another city lab engaged in purposeful but risky “gain of function” experiments that turn genetically engineered a bat coronavirus to study the changes that make it more likely to infect people.

Suspicion fell on Shi because she did before collaborate on related experiments run by Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Baric’s team grafted the mutant protein from one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which it uses to attach to the cells it infects, into another coronavirus that has been engineered to infect mice.

Shi has denied performing any similar gain-of-function experiments since that study was published in 2015. But the secrecy surrounding the research at WIV and other labs means Speculation about this possibility continues.

The most extreme idea, considered by most experts to be a conspiracy theory, is Chinese military scientists intentional design SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a biological weapon.

In his media post, Ford accused DiNanno of “dragging his feet” in getting biological weapons claims examined by the intelligence community and scientific experts. But on January 7, this year, an online meeting was attended by scientists including Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who has many times Discuss that the laboratory leak theory deserves a thorough investigation, has been summoned by the State Department to review the evidence.

They heard from Steven Quay, CEO of biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who performed an affirmative statistical analysis “beyond reasonable doubt“But SARS-CoV-2 was created in a laboratory. Based on Vanity FairQuay’s presentation was criticized by Baric, who noted that his calculations overlooked a multitude of bat coronaviruses unknown to science.

In the meeting summary Ford sent to his State Department colleagues the next day, he wrote“[H]Statistical analysis is crippled by the fact that we have essentially no data to support the main model inputs. In particular, we do not have data on the majority of bat coronaviruses that exist in the wild. Ford left the State Department on the same day, having previously announced his intention to resign.

DiNanno later answered“Conversely, we do not need to know every bat coronavirus genome to understand the possibility of infection from animals [natural] compared with laboratory origin. We only need to reliably estimate how many bat coronaviruses there are, and weight this into our current knowledge of bat coronaviruses. “

Baric and Relman did not respond to requests for comment.

In an email to BuzzFeed News, Quay defended Statistical analysissaid it was viewed online more than 160,000 times. “I get no criticism for my work,” he said. “My feeling about the meeting was that they did their best to simply fire me so they could write the report and move on.”

On January 15, the State Department Pompeo released a “flyerRegarding activities at WIV, the organization criticizes China’s secrecy surrounding COVID-19.

Instead, it stated, based on intelligence reports, that the US government “has reason to believe that a number of researchers inside the WIV became ill in the fall of 2019, prior to the case outbreak”. were first identified, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and the common seasonal illness. ”

The fact sheet also reiterated long-standing US concerns about China’s transparency in its previous research on biological weapons: “For many years, the United States has publicly raised concerns. about China’s past biological weapons activity, which Beijing has neither documented nor substantiated, although clearly disproved. obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention. And it said WIV has been collaborating on classified research on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.

But the statement makes no claim that SARS-CoV-2 is the product of Chinese biological weapons research.

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