Three previously unreleased State Department cables obtained by U.S. Right to Know include new information about classified research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
One cable alleges evidence of connections between China’s biotechnology sector and the People’s Liberation Army, including “cyber evidence” of “PLA shadow labs at WIV,” the PLA’s involvement with the construction of the lab and subsequent presence there, and “WIV personnel with possible PLA ties.”
A second cable appears to address the blurring of civilian and military research — specifically Beijing’s emphasis on “military-civil fusion,” or MCF — in the world of biotech.
A third cable details the way in which Beijing authorities, rather than local apparatchiks, censored the spiraling pandemic in critical early days, with devastating consequences: “Initial Outbreak Could Have Been Contained in China if Beijing Had Not Covered It Up,” it reads.
The cables were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department.
The cables may represent some of the research that informs a 2021 statement from the State Department that “the WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
But while some information can be gleaned through the cable’s headings, the rest of the content is fully redacted.
One heading suggests “robust cooperation between WIV and PLA AMMS,” likely a reference to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences.
The limited information in the cables suggests the U.S. has evidence that contradicts the assurances of Wuhan Institute of Virology Senior Scientist Shi Zhengli that there was no classified research at her lab.
“If it should be proven that the PLA was involved in or collaborating with the WIV prior to the outbreak, that would fatally weaken arguments against the research related origin hypothesis,” said Jamie Metzl, a geopolitical expert and former advisor to the World Health Organization on human genome editing. “The entirety of the argument against the research related hypothesis is based on the unverified word of Shi Zhengli.”
“All our research work is open, is transparent,” Shi said at a public event in 2021 in response to a question from Metzl about whether her lab has military ties. “At the beginning of COVID-19, we heard the rumors that claimed our laboratory would have some project blah blah with army blah blah … I don’t know any kind of research work performed in this lab.”
The cables challenge the certainty expressed by the lab’s Western collaborators, including EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, that all of the lab’s novel viruses have already been made public, thus the lab could not have been secretly working on the progenitor to SARS-CoV-2. The Wuhan Institute of Virology hosted a coronavirus database that was made inaccessible to the public in September 2019 and ultimately taken offline.
“There is no possible way that people outside China, including all of the scientists arguing against the research related origin hypothesis, know for certain that a precursor virus was not held within the repository of the WIV,” Metzl said.
The cables appear to have been sourced through the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto embassy of the United States.
Infectious diseases experts are split on how SARS-CoV-2 traveled from where related bat coronaviruses circulate in rural Southern China to the sprawling metropolis of Wuhan: Through virus sampling and research or through the wildlife trade.
The State Department cables emphasize that Wuhan – sometimes referred to as “China’s Chicago” – is the site of much of the country’s burgeoning dual use biotechnology.
“Wuhan: China’s Biotech Sector and a Model City for MCF Development,” one header reads.
“China’s most renowned coronavirus researcher was Shi Zhengli at WIV. She is also the chosen collaborator of one of the leading US coronavirus scientists,” said Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at University of New South Wales, who reviewed the cables.
“In terms of PLA connections and shadow research, that is likely,” MacIntyre said.
Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield expressed concern in congressional testimony earlier this year about reports that the Chinese military’s top virologist began a pandemic response role at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in early 2020.
The new cables’ redacted information is not formally eligible for declassification for two decades, until 2046.
However, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is expected to declassify intelligence related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the coming days, compelled by a bill that Congress passed unanimously in March.
ODNI Avril Haines is nearing the end of a 90 day deadline to release the relevant intelligence.
Some information has spilled out through The Times of London and independent journalists, including claims that the Wuhan Institute of Virology conducted experiments involving the insertion of furin cleavage sites into SARS-related coronaviruses — despite claims by U.S. collaborators to the contrary — and the explosive but anonymous allegation that a researcher involved with gain-of-function research on coronaviruses may comprise one of the pandemic’s index cases.
The public has yet to view for themselves the evidence undergirding these claims, or any of the evidence that informed the intelligence community’s inconclusive 2021 assessment of the origins of the worst pandemic in a century.
Both ODNI and the Department of Health and Human Services — which sent subgrants to the Wuhan lab complex via the NIH — voiced opposition to declassifying certain intelligence related to the pandemic’s origins in January 2021, according to a separate email obtained by U.S. Right to Know.
Officials voiced concerns that publicly questioning research at the Wuhan lab complex “called out actions that we ourselves are doing” and “demanded access that we ourselves would never provide.”
Indeed, U.S. biodefense also includes infectious diseases research at military labs, including the U.S. Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.
A culture of secrecy pervades maximum security labs in the U.S. too, investigative journalists have found.
Perhaps most critically, U.S. funding is directly tied to research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology via the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Institutes of Health, including funding for research on a close cousin virus 96 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2.
Cutting edge dual use biotechnology, namely gain-of-function research on pandemic potential pathogens, has made it more challenging to distinguish biodefense programs from bioweapons, according to some experts.
Both American and Chinese experts have suggested the Biological Weapons Convention should be revamped accordingly, including Yuan Zhiming, who runs the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s maximum security lab.
In April 2020, ODNI released an unusual and ultimately premature statement that it agreed with the scientific consensus that SARS-CoV-2 is not engineered. Yet no such scientific consensus existed then, and none exists now.
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know later demonstrated that Western scientists with ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including Anthony Fauci, briefed the intelligence community against the possibility of an engineered virus in the weeks leading up to that statement.
ODNI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and State Department analysts all received briefings from scientists with questionable credibility, including the Wuhan lab’s bureaucratic funders, its virologists collaborators, and the virologist coauthors of a paper prematurely dismissing the lab leak theory as a conspiracy theory.
The evidence underlying the third cable about Beijing’s coverup of the early outbreak is redacted, but the claim is corroborated by publicly available evidence.
Retrospective studies, epidemiological models and first hand accounts indicate that the outbreak was spreading widely from January 1, when the world learned about the novel virus, to January 20, when authorities finally acknowledged human-to-human transmission.
The Chinese government has yet to provide the World Health Organization with the raw data underlying the case statistics in the conflicted and politically compromised 2021 origins investigation, despite concerns about inaccuracies affecting the suspected index case and evidence of missing information.
“There is no possible way to build a future based on transparency and accountability if we don’t establish that principle now,” Metzl said. “If we give China a pass on sparking the worst pandemic in a century, they will be fully incentivized to follow the exact same game plan if and when this happens again.”
Members of the intelligence community are working with congressional investigators with the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, according to a spokesperson.