In the last days of the Trump administration, the State Department was embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origins of COVID-19, which is now in public view.
In a open letter published Thursday in Medium, Christopher Ford, former undersecretary for international security and non-proliferation, said he intervened to prevent the U.S. government from being “embarrassed and discredited” by accusing China of deliberately designing the coronavirus, although there is no evidence in this case.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ford said his colleagues were pressuring him to include allegations that China had breached the International Convention on Biological Weapons in a State Department report to Congress that could have sparked a diplomatic crisis. with one of the world’s leading US rivals.
It is very unusual for a former senior State Department official to post a personal account of recent internal disputes. But Ford’s open letter comes amid a heated debate over the so-called “lab leak” hypothesis for the emergence of COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory suggests that Chinese scientists designed SARS-CoV-2 as a biological weapon.
Sourcing your account at emails put inside the public domain through reports from Fox News i Vanity Fair, Ford’s message, detailed his increasingly strained relationship with David Asher, a State Department contractor who was investigating the origins of COVID-19, and Thomas DiNanno, a former acting head of the Control Office, Verification and Control of Weapons of the Department. Compliance (stroke). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno viewed Ford as a preconceived conclusion that the virus had a natural origin.
In the media message, Ford said DiNanno noted that the investigation focused on “China had allegedly violated the Convention on Biological Weapons by creating the virus.” He added: “They seemed to believe that COVID-19 was a disorderly biological weapons (BW) effort, or perhaps even a deliberately unleashed BW agent in the world.”
“They clearly seemed to get to that from a biological weapons angle,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “They dodged if he withdrew if there was evidence to support the finding of biological weapons on the coronavirus, but they seemed to be trying to build a case.”
Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to include the claim that China had breached the Biological Weapons Convention in a annual report prepared for Congress by the State Department. The report, required by U.S. law, details the countries compliance with international agreements on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament.
“His legal arguments seemed quite weak to me. They never presented real evidence [bioweapons] “Ford said, adding that his colleagues also argued that China should have been found in breach of the Biological Weapons Convention for not fully answering questions about the COVID-19 crisis.
In his open letter, Ford also alleged that Miles Yu, China’s military historian and policy specialist, had told DiNanno that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to keep the department’s biological weapons experts and intelligence community outside the department’s research loop. to the origins of COVID-19. Since the spring of 2020, Trump and Pompeo have claimed to have evidence that the virus arose from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
Yu denied the claim that Pompey had tried to prevent experts from reviewing the investigation. “The stroke investigation was by no means a rogue and silent operation: it cooperated with our national scientific 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 spins a counter-narrative to cover up his extreme hostility to any worthy science-based research backed and encouraged by Secretary Pompey.
Asher also discussed Ford’s account. “I was surprised that Ford had no investigation when I arrived and tried to get to the bottom of possible Chinese violations of the [Biological Weapons Convention]. Work that should continue at AVC, ”he said by email.
DiNanno did not answer BuzzFeed News’ questions, referring us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.
The debate over the origins of the virus has intensified since the end of March, when a joint occurred WHO-China Report he came out empty-handed however, he judged a laboratory leak to be “extremely unlikely.” This caused the US and 13 other governments to do so issue a statement calling for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from undue interference and influence.”
On May 26, President Joe Biden revealed that he had ordered a 90-day intelligence review that examined two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to people or was released in a laboratory accident. And in a call Friday with a senior Chinese official, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pressured China to allow further studies by WHO experts on the origins of coronavirus.
Recently, leading scientists have called for more in-depth research into the origins of COVID-19, writing in the journal Science that “the two theories were not considered in a balanced way” in the WHO-China study.
Ford is a conservative with a record for being a hawk on the threats posed by China to the US. What triggered his open letter was that, in his opinion, his former colleagues had mistakenly characterized him for intrinsically opposing the idea that the coronavirus might have escaped from a laboratory.
“I strongly supported studying the hypothesis of “lab leaks,” which is clearly a real possibility, “Ford wrote in his Medium article.” But I don’t just say it now. I said it at the time, too. A lot. “
The laboratory leak hypothesis is not a single unified theory, but a constellation of ideas around the origins of COVID-19.
Donat a history of slips in virology laboratories around the world, and China’s lack of full transparency, many scientists agree that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wild animals and released from a laboratory in Wuhan by accident. Global attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where a team led by Shi Zhengli has cataloged potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats.
More elaborate versions of the theory assume that scientists at the WIV or another city lab participated in well-intentioned but risky “function gain” experiments, genetically modifying a bat coronavirus to study changes that would make it more likely to infect people.
Suspicion has fallen on Shi, because before collaborated in related experiments directed by Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Baric’s team spliced the ear protein of one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which he uses to attach to the cells he infects, into another coronavirus that had been adapted to infect mice.
Shi has denied conducting similar function gain experiments since that research was published in 2015. But the secrecy surrounding the research at the WIV and other labs means speculation continues with this possibility.
The most extreme idea, considered a conspiracy theory by most experts, is that Chinese military scientists deliberately designed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a biological weapon.
In his media message, Ford accuses DiNanno of “dragging his feet” to get biological weapon demands examined by the intelligence community and scientific experts. But on January 7 this year, an online meeting was held with scientists such as Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who repeatedly he argued that laboratory leak theory deserves thorough investigation, it was convened by the State Department to review the evidence.
They learned of Steven Quay, CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who had conducted a statistical analysis stating that “out of any reasonable doubt”That SARS-CoV-2 was derived in a laboratory. In accordance with Vanity Fair, Quay’s presentation was criticized by Baric, who noted that they were unaware of the multitude of bat coronaviruses that remain unknown to science.
In a summary of the meeting Ford sent to colleagues in the State Department the next day, He wrote: “[H]Statistical analysis is paralyzed by the fact that we do not essentially have data to support the key contributions of the model. Critically, we do not have data on the vast majority of bat coronaviruses in nature. Ford left the State Department the same day, after previously announcing his intention to step down.
DiNanno later answered: “On the contrary, we do not need to know all the genomes of bat coronavirus to understand the probability of a zoonotic [natural] vs. origin of laboratory. We just need to reliably estimate the number of bat coronaviruses out there, and include that in our weighting of our current knowledge about bat coronaviruses. “
Baric and Relman did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Quay defended his statistical analysis, saying it has been viewed online more than 160,000 times. “I have not received any fundamental criticism of my work,” he said. “My sense of the meeting was that they were trying, as much as possible, to just fire me so I could write their report and move on to something else.”
On January 15, Pompey’s State Department released a “data sheet”On activities at the WIV, which criticized China’s secrecy around COVID-19.
Instead, he stated, based on intelligence reports, that the U.S. government “has reason to believe that several WIV researchers fell ill in the fall of 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common. seasonal diseases “.
The fact sheet also reiterated U.S. concerns about China’s transparency in its past research on biological weapons: “For many years, the United States has publicly expressed its concerns about the past work of biological weapons in China. China, which Beijing has not documented or eliminated demonstrable, despite its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention. ” And he said the WIV had collaborated in classified investigations on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.
But the statement did not claim that SARS-CoV-2 was the product of Chinese research on biological weapons.