In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department has been embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origins of the coronavirus, which is now being made public.
In an open letter posted on Medium Thursday, Christopher Ford, former assistant secretary for international security and non-proliferation, said he had intervened to prevent the US government from embarrassing and discrediting itself by speaking China accuses of deliberately constructing the coronavirus – although there is no evidence to support 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, creating a diplomatic crisis with one of the leading global US states can trigger rivals.
It is highly unusual for a former senior State Department official to publish a personal report on recent internal disputes. But Ford’s open letter comes amid a bitter debate over the so-called laboratory leak hypothesis for the emergence of the virus that causes COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory suggests that Chinese scientists developed SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon.
Ford’s Medium post, referring to emails made publicly available through coverage from Fox News and Vanity Fair, described his increasingly strained relationship with David Asher, a State Department contractor who was conducting his investigation into the origins of the coronavirus , and Thomas DiNanno, former deputy head of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno Ford considered a preconceived conclusion that the virus was of natural origin.
In the Medium post, Ford said DiNanno had signaled that the investigation focused on “China allegedly violated the Biological Weapons Convention by developing the virus.” He added, “They seemed to believe that COVID-19 was a failed biological weapons (BW) attempt – or maybe even a BW agent deliberately unleashed on the world.”
“They clearly seemed to be looking at this from a biological weapons perspective,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “You got gross when you pushed back on whether there was evidence of a biological weapon find via the coronavirus, but they appeared to be trying to build a case.”
Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to include claims that China had violated the Biological Weapons Convention in an annual State Department report to Congress. The report required by US law describes compliance with international agreements on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament by nations.
“Your legal arguments sounded pretty weak to me. You never have any actual evidence. submitted [bioweapons] Work, ”said Ford, adding that his colleagues also argued that China should have violated the Bioweapons Convention by not fully answering questions about the COVID-19 crisis.
In its open letter, Ford also alleged Miles Yu, a military historian and China politics specialist, told DiNanno that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to keep the department’s bioweapons experts and the intelligence community away from the department’s investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Since spring 2020, Donald Trump and Pompeo had claimed to have evidence that the virus emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
Yu denied claims that Pompeo was trying to prevent experts from reviewing the investigation. “The AVC investigation was by no means a rogue and silent operation – it worked with our national science labs, world-renowned scientists with serious but diverse opinions, and several key agencies in the intelligence community,” Yu told BuzzFeed News via email. “Chris Ford is directing a state-of-the-art narrative to cover up his extreme hostility towards any worthy scientific investigation endorsed and encouraged by Secretary of State Pompeo.”
Asher also denied Ford’s account. “I was shocked that Ford had no investigation pending upon my arrival and was trying to investigate possible Chinese violations of the law [Biological Weapons Convention]. Work that should be continued in AVC, ”he said via email.
DiNanno didn’t answer any questions from BuzzFeed News and referred us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.
The debate about the origins of the virus has intensified since the end of March, when a joint report by the WHO and China went empty-handed, but classified a laboratory leak as “extremely unlikely”. This prompted the US and 13 other governments to issue a statement calling for “transparent and independent analysis and assessment, free of interference and undue influence”.
On May 25, President Joe Biden announced that he had ordered a 90-day intelligence review that examined two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to humans or was released in a laboratory accident. And in a call to a senior Chinese official on Friday, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken urged China to allow further studies by WHO experts on the origins of the coronavirus.
Leading scientists also recently called for a deeper investigation into the origins of COVID-19, writing in the journal Science that “the two theories were not considered balanced in the WHO-China study”.
Ford is a conservative who is aggressive about China’s threats to the US. The trigger for his open letter was that, in his view, his former colleagues had misrepresented him as inherently opposed to the idea that the coronavirus might have escaped from a laboratory.
“I strong supported to investigate the “laboratory leak” hypothesis, which is clearly a real possibility, “wrote Ford in his Medium post. “But I’m not just saying that now. I said it then too. Much.”
The lab leak hypothesis is not a uniform theory, but a constellation of ideas around the origins of COVID-19.
Given a history of slips in virology labs around the world and a lack of complete transparency from China, many scientists accept the possibility that the virus was collected from wildlife and released from a lab in Wuhan after an accident. Worldwide 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 suggest that scientists from WIV or another laboratory in town conducted well-intentioned but risky “gain in functionality” experiments in which a bat coronavirus was genetically modified to study the changes that one Infection would make people more likely.
Shi is suspected of having previously worked on similar experiments by Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Baric’s team spliced the spike protein from one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which it uses to attach to the cells he has infected, into another coronavirus that has been adapted to infect mice.
Shi has denied performing similar gain-of-function experiments since this research was published in 2015. But the secrecy of research at the WIV and other laboratories means speculation about this possibility continues.
The most extreme idea, considered a conspiracy theory by most experts, is that Chinese military scientists purposely engineered SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a bioweapon.
In his Medium contribution, Ford accuses DiNanno of “dragging his feet” for investigating the bioweapons claims of intelligence agencies and scientific experts. But on January 7th of that year, the State Department convened an online meeting involving scientists like Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, who has repeatedly argued that the laboratory leak theory needs thorough investigation, to review the evidence.
You heard from Steven Quay, CEO of biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who had performed a statistical analysis that “without reasonable doubt” claimed that SARS-CoV-2 was obtained in a laboratory. According to Vanity Fair, Quay’s presentation was criticized by Baric, who stated they were ignoring the multitude of bat coronaviruses unknown to science.
In a summary of the meeting that Ford sent to colleagues at the State Department the next day, he wrote: “[H]This statistical analysis is hampered by the fact that we essentially have no data to support key model inputs. The bottom line is that we don’t have data on the vast majority of bat coronaviruses found in the wild. ”Ford left the State Department the same day after previously announcing his intention to resign.
DiNanno later replied, “On the contrary, we don’t need to know every bat coronavirus genome to understand the likelihood of a zoonosis [natural] vs. laboratory origin. We only have to reliably estimate the number of bat coronaviruses and include this in 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 its statistical analysis, saying it was viewed online over 160,000 times. “I have not received any content-related criticism of my work,” he said. “My feeling for the meeting was that they tried as hard as they could to just fire me so they could write their report and move on to something else.”
On January 15, Pompeo’s Foreign Ministry published a “fact sheet” on the activities at the WIV, in which China’s secrecy regarding COVID-19 was criticized.
Instead, based on intelligence reports, the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers within the EIV in the fall of 2019, prior to the first identified case of the outbreak, had symptoms associated with both COVID-19 and.” coincide with common symptoms, got sick ”. seasonal diseases. “
The factsheet also reiterated US longstanding concerns about China’s transparency about its previous research on biological weapons: “The US has for many years publicly expressed concerns about China’s past biological weapons work, which Beijing, despite its clear statement, has neither documented nor demonstrably removed from its obligations Convention on Biological Weapons. ”And it was said that the WIV had been working on secret research on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.
However, the statement did not claim that SARS-CoV-2 was the product of Chinese bioweapons research.