“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.”
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.
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.