In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department was embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origins of COVID-19 that is now spreading into public view.
In one open letter Posted on Medium on Thursday, Christopher Ford, former deputy secretary for international security and non-proliferation, said he intervened to prevent the US government from “embarrassing and discrediting itself” by accusing China of having deliberately engineered the coronavirus – despite the lack of evidence to make this case.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ford said his colleagues were pushing to include allegations that China violated the International Biological Weapons Convention in a State Department report to Congress, which could have sparked a crisis. diplomatic with one of the main global rivals of the United States.
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 bitter debate over the so-called “lab leak” hypothesis for the emergence of COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory suggests that Chinese scientists designed SARS-CoV-2 as a biological weapon.
Source your account for e-mails Put into the public domain through reports by Fox news and Vanity FairFord’s Medium post detailed its increasingly strained relationship with David Asher, a State Department contractor who was investigating the origins of COVID-19, and Thomas DiNanno, former acting head of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno viewed Ford as pushing a preconceived conclusion that the virus had a natural origin.
In the Medium post, Ford said DiNanno reported that the investigation focused on “China allegedly violated the Biological Weapons Convention by creating the virus.” He added: “They seemed to believe COVID-19 was a biological weapons (BW) effort gone bad – or maybe even a BW agent deliberately unleashed on the world. “
“They clearly seemed to be approaching this from a biological weapons perspective,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “They took to framing if you pushed back if there was any evidence to support a biological weapons discovery on the coronavirus, but they seemed to be trying to build a case. “
Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to include the claim that China had violated the Biological Weapons Convention in a Annual Report prepared for Congress by the State Department. The report, mandated by US law, details the respect for international agreements on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament.
“Their legal arguments seemed pretty weak to me. They never presented evidence of [bioweapons] work, ”said Ford, adding that his colleagues also argued that China should have been found in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention for not fully answering questions about the COVID-19 crisis.
In his open letter, Ford also alleged that Miles Yu, a military historian and expert on Chinese politics, told DiNanno that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to hold on to the department’s biological weapons experts and the intelligence community. out of the department’s investigation loop. on the origins of COVID-19. Since spring 2020, Trump and Pompeo had claimed to have evidence that the virus emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China.
Yu denied the claim that Pompeo sought to prevent experts from reviewing the investigation. “The AVC investigation was by no means a dishonest and covert operation – it cooperated with our national science labs, world-renowned scientists of serious but different opinions, and several key agencies in the intelligence community,” Yu told BuzzFeed News via email. “Chris Ford turns a contrary account to the facts to cover up his extreme hostility to any valid scientific investigation supported and encouraged by Secretary Pompeo.
Asher also took issue with Ford’s account. “I was shocked that Ford did not conduct an investigation when I arrived and began to try to shed light on possible Chinese violations of the [Biological Weapons Convention]. Work that should continue in AVC, ”he said by email.
DiNanno did not respond to BuzzFeed News questions, referring us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.
Debate over the origins of the virus has intensified since late March, when a WHO-China report came empty-handed yet judged a laboratory leak as “extremely unlikely”. This prompted the United States and 13 other governments to publish a statement calling for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, without interference or undue influence”.
On May 26, President Joe Biden revealed that he had ordered a 90-day intelligence review probing two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to humans, or was released in a lab accident. And in a call with a senior Chinese official on Friday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken China in a hurry to allow more studies by WHO experts on the origins of the coronavirus.
Leading scientists also recently called for further investigation into the origins of COVID-19, written in the journal Science that “the two theories were not taken into account in a balanced way” in the WHO-China study.
Ford is a conservative with a record of being warmonger on threats posed to the United States by China. What sparked his open letter was that his former colleagues had, in his opinion, mistakenly presented him as being inherently opposed to the idea that the coronavirus may have escaped from a laboratory.
“I strongly supported by examining the “lab leak” hypothesis, which is clearly a real possibility, ”Ford wrote in his Medium article. “But I’m not just saying that now. I said that at the time as well. A lot.”
The laboratory leak hypothesis is not a unified theory, but rather a constellation of ideas around the origins of COVID-19.
Given a story of slippage in virology laboratories around the world, and a complete lack of transparency on the part of China, many scientists admit that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wild animals and accidentally released from a laboratory from Wuhan. Global attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where a team led by Shi Zhengli has cataloged potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats.
More elaborate versions of the theory assume scientists at WIV or another city lab were engaged in well-intentioned but risky ‘gain-of-function’ experiments, genetically modifying a bat coronavirus to study the changes. that would make it more likely to infect people.
Suspicion fell on Shi, as she had previously collaborated in related experiments led by Ralph Baric, virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Baric’s team spliced the spike protein from one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which they use to lock onto cells they infect, into another coronavirus that had been adapted to infect them. mouse.
Shi has denied having conducted similar gain-of-office experiments since this research was published in 2015. But the secrecy surrounding the research at WIV and other labs means speculation about the possibility continues.
The most extreme idea, considered a conspiracy theory by most experts, is that Chinese military scientists deliberately designed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a biological weapon.
In his article on Medium, Ford accuses DiNanno of “dragging his feet” for having the biological weapons allegations validated by the intelligence community and scientific experts. But on January 7 of this year, an online meeting involving scientists including Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who has Many times argued that the laboratory leak theory merits further investigation, has been summoned by the State Department to examine the evidence.
They heard from Steven Quay, CEO of biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who had conducted a statistical analysis that said “beyond reasonable doubt”That SARS-CoV-2 was derived in a lab. According to Vanity Fair, Quay’s presentation was criticized by Baric, who noted that they were unaware of the multitude of bat coronaviruses that remain unknown to science.
In a summary of the meeting Ford sent to State Department colleagues the next day, he wrote: “[H]This statistical analysis is crippled by the fact that we have virtually no data to support the key inputs to the model. Critically, we have no data on the vast majority of bat coronaviruses that exist in the wild. Ford left the State Department the same day, having previously announced his intention to step down.
DiNanno later replied: “On the contrary, we don’t need to know every bat coronavirus genome to understand the likelihood of a zoonosis [natural] in relation to the origin of the laboratory. We just need to reliably estimate the number of bat coronaviruses and factor that into our weighting of our current knowledge of bat coronaviruses. “
Baric and Relman did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Quay defended his statistical analyzes, claiming it has been viewed over 160,000 times online. “I have not received any substantial criticism of my work,” he said. “My feeling from the meeting was that they tried as much as possible to just fire me so they could write their report and move on.”
On January 15, the State Department of Pompeo issued a “fact sheetOn the activities of the WIV, which criticized China’s secrecy around COVID-19.
Instead, he said, based on intelligence reports, that the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers within the WIV fell ill in the fall of 2019, before the first identified case of the epidemic, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.
The fact sheet also reiterated the United States’ long-standing concerns about China’s transparency about its past research on biological weapons: the Biological Weapons Convention. And he said the WIV has been collaborating on classified research on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.
But the statement did not claim that SARS-CoV-2 was the product of Chinese biological weapons research.