State Department officials fought over lab leak theory

In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department was embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origin of the coronavirus that is now spreading to public opinion.

in a open letter Posted on Medium on Thursday, Christopher Ford, the former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said it intervened to prevent the US government from “embarrassing itself and discrediting itself” by accusing China of deliberately engineering the coronavirus – although there is no evidence for this. this case.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ford said his colleagues have been pushing for allegations that China has violated the International Biological Weapons Convention to be included in the State Department’s report to Congress, which could have caused a diplomatic crisis with one of the world’s top officials in the United States. his rivals.

It is highly unusual for a former senior State Department official to publish a personal report on recent internal disagreements. But Ford’s open letter comes amid a heated debate over the so-called lab leak hypothesis of the virus that causes COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory suggests that Chinese scientists designed SARS-CoV-2 as a biological weapon.

Locate his account sources to Email messages put in The public domain By reporting via Fox News And Vanity FairFord’s post on Medium detailed his increasingly fraught relationship with David Asher, the State Department contractor who has been conducting its investigations into the origins of the coronavirus, and Thomas Dinano, the acting chief of the department’s Office of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno have seen Ford advance the conclusion that the virus has a natural origin.

In a Medium post, Ford said DiNanno noted that the investigation was focused on “China allegedly in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention by creating the virus.” He added: “They seem to believe that COVID-19 was the result of a bioweapon (BW) effort that went awry – or perhaps even a biological weapon agent deliberately released into the world.”

“Obviously they come from a biological weapons angle,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “They would be shocked if you pressed on whether there was evidence to support the discovery of biological weapons on the coronavirus, but it looks like they’re trying to build a case.”

Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to include the allegation that China had violated the BWC in Annual Report Prepared for Congress by the State Department. The report, which is provided by US law, separates the countries Compliance with international agreements on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament.

“Their legal arguments seemed too weak to me. They did not provide actual evidence. [bioweapons] Ford said, adding that colleagues were also arguing that China should have been found in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention for failing to fully answer questions about the COVID-19 crisis.

In his open letter, Ford also claimed that Miles Yu, a military historian who specializes in Chinese politics, told DiNano that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wants to keep the department’s biological weapons experts and intelligence community out of the department’s investigation. On the origins of the coronavirus. Since the spring of 2020, Donald Trump and Pompeo have been He claimed to have evidence The virus emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Yu denied the allegation that Pompeo sought to prevent experts from reviewing the investigation. “The AVC investigation was in no way a rogue and silent operation — it collaborated with our National Science Laboratories, world-renowned scientists with serious but different opinions, and several key agencies of the intelligence community,” Yu told BuzzFeed News by email. “Chris Ford is spinning a false narrative to cover up his fervent hostility to any worthy scientific investigation that Secretary Pompeo supports and encourages.”

Asher also opposed Ford’s account. “I was shocked that Ford didn’t have an investigation going on when I arrived and started trying to get to the bottom of possible Chinese abuses [Biological Weapons Convention]. “The work that should continue at AVC,” he said via email.

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

Controversy has raged over the origins of the virus since late March, when it was shared WHO report – China Came empty handed However, it ruled a lab leak “extremely unlikely”. This prompted the United States and 13 other governments to do so release statement Advocating for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.”

On May 26, President Joe Biden revealed that it was an order A 90-day intelligence review looks at two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to humans or was released in a lab accident. In a telephone conversation with a senior Chinese official on Friday, Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken China pressed To allow further studies by WHO experts on the origin of the coronavirus.

Leading scholars also recently called for a deeper investigation into the origins of COVID-19, Writing in a science magazine That “the two theories were not given balanced consideration” in the WHO-China study.

Ford is conservative with Record being tough On the threats posed by China to the United States. What sparked his open letter was that his former colleagues, in his opinion, mischaracterized him as inherently opposed to the idea that the coronavirus might have escaped from the lab.

“I’m strong supported Considering the hypothesis of a “lab leak,” which is clearly a real possibility,” Ford wrote in his message on Medium. “But I am not saying this only now. I said that at the time as well. Much.”

The lab leak hypothesis is not a single unified theory, but rather a set of ideas about The origins of COVID-19.

Grant A history of mistakes In virology laboratories around the worldIn the absence of complete transparency from China, many scientists accept that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wild animals and released from a lab in Wuhan by accident. Global attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where a team led by Shi Jingli has cataloged potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats.

More detailed versions of the theory posit that scientists at WIV or another lab in the city took part in well-intentioned but risky “gain-the-job” experiments, genetically modifying bat coronaviruses to study changes that would make it more susceptible to infection in people.

Shi was suspicious because it had happened earlier Collaborated on related experiments It is directed by Ralph Barrick, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Barrick’s team split the spiky protein from one bat coronavirus, which it uses to stick to cells it infects, into another coronavirus adapted to infect mice.

Shi has denied conducting any similar job-earnings experiments since this research was published in 2015. But the secrecy surrounding the research at WIV and other labs means speculation about this possibility persists.

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

In his post on Medium, Ford accuses DiNanno of being “slow” to get BW allegations scrutinized by the intelligence community and scientific experts. But on January 7 of this year, an online meeting took place that included scientists including Barrick and David Reelman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who conducted Repeatedly argue That the lab leak theory deserves a thorough investigation, by the State Department to review the evidence.

They heard from Stephen Quay, CEO of biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who performed a statistical analysis that claimed “Without a doubtthat SARS-CoV-2 was derived in the laboratory. according to Vanity Fair, Barrick criticized The Quay Show, who noted that his accounts ignored several bat coronaviruses that are still unknown to science.

In the summary of the meeting that Ford sent to his colleagues at the State Department the following day, he wrote, “[H]is that statistical analysis is hampered by the fact that we basically don’t have data to support the main model inputs. Crucially, we do not have data on the vast majority of bat viruses found in the wild.” Ford left the State Department on the same day, having earlier announced his intention to step down.

DiNanno later repliedOn the contrary, we do not need to know the genome of every coronavirus bat to understand the possibility of infection with an animal virus [natural] against the origin of the laboratory. We only need to reliably estimate the number of bat viruses, and factor that into a weighting of our current knowledge about bat viruses.”

Barrick and Reelman did not respond to requests for comment.

In an email to BuzzFeed News, Quay defended it statistical analysis, saying it has been viewed online more than 160,000 times. “I have not received any substantial criticism of my work,” he said. “My feeling at the meeting was that they were trying as much as possible to simply push me out so they could write their report and move on to something else.”

On January 15, the State Department released Pompeo, “statement of factsOn activities at the WIV, which criticized China’s secrecy about COVID-19.

Instead, it stated, based on intelligence reports, that the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers within the WIV contracted the disease in the fall of 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common diseases.” seasonal.”

The fact sheet also reiterated long-standing US concerns about China’s transparency about its past research on biological weapons: under the Biological Weapons Convention.” It said WIV had cooperated on classified research on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.

But the statement did not mention the claim that SARS-CoV-2 was a product of Chinese biological weapons research.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo