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US Scientist’s Warnings About Wuhan Research Facility Predated the Pandemic

A series of previously unreported alarms and clashes over US-funded research in China reveal long-standing friction between two groups of government scientists: those who prioritize international collaboration, and those who are kept up at night by the idea that cutting-edge technologies could end up in the wrong hands.

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Barack Obama shakes hands with Francis Collins, director of National Institutes of Health, in 2009. Collins said warnings of dangerous genetically engineered viruses were ‘science fiction’ In the last days of the administration, he said at a contentious WH meeting that a DOE threat assessment “reads like a movie script.”

“Delete That Comment”

In late October 2017, a US health official from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) arrived at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for a glimpse of an eagerly anticipated work in progress. The WIV, a leading research institute, was putting the finishing touches on China’s first biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory. Operating with the highest safeguards, the lab would enable scientists to study some of the world’s most lethal pathogens.

The project had support from Western governments seeking a more robust partnership with China’s top scientists. France had helped design the facility. Canada, before long, would send virus samples. And in the US, NIAID was channeling grant dollars through an American organization called EcoHealth Alliance, a controversial research group at the center of the Covid lab leak theory, to help fund the WIV’s cutting-edge coronavirus research.

That funding allowed the NIAID official, who worked out of the US embassy in Beijing, to become one of the first Americans to tour the lab. Her goal was to facilitate cooperation between American and Chinese scientists. Nevertheless, says Asha M. George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, a nonprofit that advises the US government on biodefense policy, “If you want to know what’s going on in a closed country, one of the things the US has done is give them grant money.”

The lab — where the FBI believes Covid leaked from — was found to have a ‘serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate’.

The official — who is unnamed due to concerns for her safety — from the NIAID, run by Anthony Fauci at the time, was instructed to erase the safety failures in her report to avoid angering China.

And this wasn’t the first time concerns over engineered viruses were dismissed.  A year prior, US officials at the DOE warned the NIAID of the dangers of genetically engineered and altered pathogens. However, longtime head of the NIH, Francis Collins, called the claims ‘science fiction.’

The NIAID official told her superiors what she’d gleaned from the technician who’d served as her guide. The lab, which was not yet fully operational, was struggling to develop enough expertise among its staff—a concern in a setting that had no tolerance for errors. “According to [the technician], being the first P4 [or BSL-4] lab in the country, they have to learn everything from zero,” she wrote. “They rely on those scientists who have worked in P4 labs outside China to train the other scientists how to operate.”

She’d also learned something else “alarming” from the technician, she wrote. Researchers at the WIV intended to study Ebola, but Chinese government restrictions prevented them from importing samples. As a result, they were considering using a technique called reverse genetics to engineer Ebola in the lab.

Anticipating that this information would set off alarm bells in the US, the official cautioned, “I was shocked to hear what he said [about reverse engineering Ebola]. I also worry the reaction of people in Washington when they read this. I don’t want the information particularly using reverse genetics to create viruses to get out, which would affect the ability for our future information gain,” meaning it would impair the collaboration between NIAID and the WIV. “I don’t feel comfortable for the broader audience within the government circle [to hear this]. It could be very sensitive.”

There was good reason to fear that such a revelation could derail the fledgling partnership. One year earlier, the US Department of Energy had warned other agencies, including NIAID’s parent entity, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that advanced genetic engineering techniques could be misused for malign ends. The Energy Department had developed a classified proposal, reported on here for the first time, to ramp up safeguards against that possibility and develop tools to better detect evidence of genetic engineering. The proposal, which was not implemented in its suggested form, prompted a heated interagency battle.

F. Gray Handley, then NIAID’s associate director for international research affairs, responded to the email agreeing with the official. His response included: “As we discussed. Delete that comment.”

On January 19, 2018, the US embassy in Beijing issued a sensitive but unclassified cable that included details from the NIAID official’s tour. It said that WIV scientists themselves had noted the “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate” the lab, according to an unredacted copy obtained by Vanity Fair. But the cable did not include the information that her NIAID colleagues apparently found most worrying.

For synthetic biologists, the idea of engineering Ebola isn’t seen as particularly unusual. Reverse genetics, using the CRISPR gene editing technology developed roughly a decade ago, is now a widely used laboratory technique. The WIV’s BSL-4 laboratory was designed to safely research Ebola, be it natural or man-made. Some scientists argue that, for research purposes, it can be safer to make a deadly pathogen in-house than to risk transporting it.

However, according to Stanford microbiologist David Relman, the risks of the WIV producing something new or unknown may have driven the government’s concern. “When you are reverse engineering Ebola, you have now established a platform from which you can do [a] million different things with Ebola, or something that you call Ebola,” he says. “It means you can now make any variant or construct that is Ebola-like at will.”

US government warnings about scientific collaborations in autocratic countries predate the pandemic and cut across partisan lines.

Any effort to shield the technician’s Ebola remarks from wider scrutiny within the federal government would be “a dereliction of responsibility,” says Gerald Parker, former commander of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).

Some view ongoing questions about biosafety at the WIV as part of a Republican campaign to discredit Anthony Fauci, who led NIAID for 38 years. But US government warnings about scientific collaborations in autocratic countries predate the pandemic and cut across partisan lines. Concerns flagged in the Obama administration persisted through the Trump administration and are being examined today.

“There’s a dark side” to certain research, says Jason Paragas. “Just because you’re doing it to publish a paper doesn’t mean no one is going to do anything bad.”

Between 2015 and 2023, at least seven US entities supplied NIH grant money to labs in China performing animal experiments, totaling $3,306,061 — that we know about.

“Serious Security Concerns”

Operating out of a sprawling 300-acre campus in Bethesda, Maryland, the National Institutes of Health describes itself as “the federal focal point for health research.” Each year it makes more than 50,000 grants, distributing the majority of its $48 billion budget to researchers in the US and around the world. Among its 27 institutes and centers is NIAID, which distributed $5.3 billion in the 2023 fiscal year alone.

For the NIH and its grantees, global collaboration and transparent data sharing are synonymous with scientific progress. Even a trickle of grant money to a foreign lab can pay dividends. It can give US researchers access to new environments and viruses and help build trust that may elude bickering governments. “It is almost always beneficial to exchange ideas and samples with other countries, particularly those with different climates than our own,” says Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I don’t see why science funding should be reserved for friendly countries.”

But within the federal government, there is a different world of scientists: those tasked with anticipating threats to national security. In the open exchange of cutting-edge research with scientists in autocratic countries, they see the risk that science that serves the public good could be misappropriated to cause harm—a phenomenon known as dual-use research of concern. Worries about dual-use research have only grown with the easy accessibility of DNA-editing tools. Those technologies have opened the door to miraculous treatments, such as using gene editing to reduce cholesterol and protect against heart disease. But “there’s a dark side” to certain research, says Jason Paragas, former director of innovation at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. “Just because you’re doing it to publish a paper doesn’t mean no one is going to do anything bad.”

Lawrence Livermore is one of 17 national laboratories overseen by the Department of Energy, a science and technology agency with strong intelligence capabilities, a number of whose scientists regularly review classified threats. “They spend their time in a dark world, faced with the nastiness of what could go on,” says Diane DiEuliis, a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University. Sometimes they flag concerns for scientists who, given their focus on open research, are “not willing to even contemplate what they’re talking about.”

Based on classified threat assessments, and concerns raised by DOE scientists, Brouillette urged NIAID to use caution in its collaborations with Chinese government scientists

DOE officials issued their most specific warning in mid-2019, just months before the pandemic began. Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette alerted a top Fauci adviser that the coronavirus research the US was helping to fund at the WIV risked being misappropriated for military purposes. Based on classified threat assessments, and concerns raised by DOE scientists, Brouillette urged NIAID to use caution in its collaborations with Chinese government scientists. His warning should have served as a red flag for any research the agency was conducting with China, according to two sources with knowledge of the exchange.

A spokesperson for NIAID said, “We are not aware of this interaction.” A spokesperson for Fauci, who has advised seven presidents on infectious disease policy and [supposedly] championed expanded treatment options for HIV and AIDS, said he was unavailable to respond to questions.

Shi Zhengli – dubbed the ‘Bat Lady’ or ‘Bat Woman’ for her work on bat coronaviruses – “investigated the possibility” Covid could have emerged from her lab back in 2020, according to colleagues. And you thought that little mask protected you?

Though the DOE and the NIH have partnered on historic endeavors, from the Human Genome Project to the Cancer Moonshot, they’ve also battled over what restrictions, if any, should be placed on technologies that allow scientists to synthesize and edit DNA. “We came at it from the point of view, ‘There are serious security concerns,’” says Ernest Moniz, who served as DOE secretary under Obama. “Our view was always, ‘We have to address them in ways that do not unduly restrict basic science.’ But what is the meaning of ‘unduly’? There lies the entire matter.” In meetings during the final months of the Obama administration, the longtime head of the NIH, Francis Collins, dismissed such risks as “science fiction,” according to several people present.

This June, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued a declassified report that provided a snapshot of perspectives on the COVID-19 origins question across America’s intelligence agencies. According to the report, the DOE and the FBI believe the pandemic is most likely to have originated with a lab leak. The National Intelligence Council and four other agencies say the virus most likely spilled over from a natural host, and two others, including the CIA, say there isn’t enough evidence to support one conclusion over the other.

All the intelligence agencies agree that SARS-CoV-2 was not developed as a bioweapon, the report said, and “almost all” agree it “was not genetically engineered.” Three sources said that DOE scientists, using an array of advanced tools and working out of several different labs, including Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, and Oak Ridge, could not rule out the possibility that the virus’s sequence had been engineered.

The ODNI report also found that People’s Liberation Army scientists sometimes worked out of WIV labs and collaborated with its civilian scientists on biosecurity projects and coronavirus research to address public health needs.

The Chinese government encourages such intermingling with a policy called military-civil fusion, which aims to harness civilian scientific innovation to advance military goals.

“This Reads Like a Movie Script”

In 2011, a Dutch virologist named Ron Fouchier announced at a scientific conference that he’d genetically engineered what he’d later describe as “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.” He had altered the H5N1 avian influenza strain to make it transmissible among ferrets, which are genetically closer to humans than mice are. The experiment had been funded, in part, by the NIH.

Fouchier’s announcement triggered an uproar over what’s known today as gain-of-function research of concern—lab work that enhances the virulence or transmissibility of pathogens to help assess their threat to humans and develop countermeasures. Though the NIH has advocated for such research, others in the scientific community organized against it, arguing that creating pathogens that don’t exist in nature runs the risk of unleashing them.

The Dutch government initially blocked Fouchier from publishing his findings, for fear that they could serve as a how-to manual for bioterrorists.

Amid the controversy, the NIH assembled a high-level group, nicknamed the “ferrets committee,” to advise it on the risks of funding such research. As one member of the advisory group recalled, “We were worried we could be in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.

From 2009 to 2021, the NIH was led by Francis Collins, whose achievements include discovering the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. In March 2012, Collins wrote an email to members of the ferrets committee in which he acknowledged, “I am not familiar with the Biologic and Toxic Weapons Convention. Can our crack legal staff offer any opinions on this question?”

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, enforced since 1975, is the most significant treaty that governs the development and use of biological agents.

In response, a staffer emailed her supervisor: “I can’t believe he doesn’t know what the BWC is???!!! yikes.” The supervisor replied, “It shows you how different our worlds are.”

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