Beijing authorities ordered an early crackdown on information about the coronavirus pandemic, forbidding the sharing of viral samples outside of government sanctioned labs in the name of “biosafety,” a secret order obtained by U.S. Right to Know shows.
In addition to slowing the global response to the pandemic, the destruction of early samples also reportedly constrained the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to assess the pandemic’s origin.
An order to the country’s labs forbade them from sharing viral samples or publishing information without permission from the government. It was issued by the National Health Commission, the branch of the State Council in Beijing that oversees health issues.
The order is dated January 3, 2020, just two days after the world was first made aware of the novel coronavirus by an alert to the global infectious diseases reporting system ProMed.
Some details about the order have been reported by Caixin and the Associated Press but U.S. Right to Know is publishing the entire document for the first time.
The order states that all samples should be shared with high-level institutions “at or above the provincial level” designated by the government for testing and then be disposed of.
Any lab that obtained samples before January 3 was ordered to share them with institutions designated by the government or to destroy them “on the spot.”
The government promised to “strengthen law enforcement inspections” and “severely deal with” people and institutions that defy the order.
“No institution or individual may release any relevant information to the outside world without authorization,” it reads.
Scientists were not permitted to communicate with the public about their findings without approval, the document suggests.
“Results related to infectious diseases and biosafety should be reviewed,” it reads. “Opinions that have not been scientifically verified and reviewed must not be publicly disseminated to the public.”
The order repeatedly emphasizes the need to “eliminate safety hazards in a timely manner” and the importance of ensuring that biosafety is “foolproof.”
The order came just two days after the government shut down the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, a wet market connected to many early COVID-19 cases.
In addition, sometime in early 2020, the National Security Commission inspected the Wuhan Institute of Virology, testing blood samples from researchers for exposure to the virus, according to a recently released declassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Anonymous sources in the intelligence community told the New York Times last week that the destruction of early samples hampered efforts to trace the virus’ origin, yet paradoxically also cautioned “against overstating the importance of the destroyed samples.”
Early viral sequences are key to piecing together the family tree of SARS-CoV-2 and unraveling how the pandemic began, but because of early and ongoing data censorship and destruction, much of the crucial information remains out of reach.
“Having access to additional sequences from the early days would greatly help researchers to infer what happened in Wuhan in 2019 and to distinguish between the different scenarios,” said Virginie Courtier-Orgogozo, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research.
The notice only represents one facet of a wide-reaching crackdown on any scientific research that threatens to demonstrate the failures of the Chinese government to contain the pandemic, illuminate how it prioritized information control over lives, or pinpoint the pandemic’s source.
At least 100 individuals with symptom onset in December 2019 — some of the pandemic’s earliest days — have been sampled. Yet only about 20 genome sequences from these patients are available to international researchers, Courtier-Orgogozo said.
The order to destroy samples had global ramifications, including slowing the U.S. response to the pandemic.
James Le Duc, the former leader of a maximum security lab in Galveston, Texas, which had a formal research agreement with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, attempted to obtain early viral samples from his contacts at the lab in late January 2020 but was unsuccessful, emails obtained through a public records request show. Le Duc eventually obtained the lab’s first sample from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Le Duc initially assured reporters and congressional staff that a lab accident was an unlikely origin of the pandemic, even publicly praising the Chinese government for being “transparent in sharing their findings with the world,” but later quietly outlined to colleagues how a lab leak investigation might be undertaken.
The order is reminiscent of data censorship during the SARS epidemic that began in 2002. During that crisis, only the China CDC could legally possess viral samples. The Ministry of Health — the predecessor to the National Health Commission — closely guarded information.
The document used in this report was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department. Translation was completed through Google Translate.