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Pompeo: China’s Reckless Labs Put the World at Risk

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media in Washington, D.C., November 24, 2020. (Saul Loeb/Reuters)

In today’s Wall Street Journal op-ed page, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, along with Miles Yu, his top China policy adviser write that “China’s Reckless Labs Put the World at Risk,” and come right up to the line of outright declaring that the coronavirus pandemic is the result of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Pompeo and Yu don’t point to any new or smoking-gun evidence, but they do point to a few pieces of circumstantial evidence that haven’t gotten much attention. Perhaps most notably, the op-ed column declares, “in January 2021, the State Department confirmed that people had fallen mysteriously ill at WIV in fall 2019, and that WIV conducts secret bioweapons research with the PLA.”

This echoes the fact sheet issued by the department that began with the cautionary note that the U.S government did not know how the virus first jumped into humans, but then continued, “The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

This past Sunday, President Trump’s former deputy national-security adviser, Matt Pottinger, said on CBS News’ Face the Nation:

We have very strong reason to believe that the Chinese military was doing secret classified animal experiments in that same laboratory, going all the way back to at least 2017. We have good reason to believe that there was an outbreak of flu-like illness among researchers working in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the fall of 2019, but right — immediately before the first documented cases came to light.

China signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1984, which outlaws the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons.

China claims that it is in complete compliance with the BWC; the U.S. government disagrees. In 2019, the U.S. State Department’s updated report on compliance with arms-control agreements concluded,

the People’s Republic of China engaged during the reporting period in biological activities with potential dual-use applications, which raises concerns regarding its compliance with the BWC. In addition, the United States does not have sufficient information to determine whether China eliminated its assessed biological warfare program, as required under Article II of the Convention.

The report added, “available information on studies from researchers at Chinese military medical institutions often identify biological activities of a possibly anomalous nature since presentations discuss identifying, characterizing and testing numerous toxins with potential dual-use applications.”

It is not surprising or unusual or necessarily a treaty violation for the Chinese government to be particularly interested in researching potentially dangerous viruses. The first SARS broke out in Guangdong Province in 2003 — about 500 miles away from Wuhan. Even after the initial SARS outbreak died down, the danger to Chinese citizens from SARS persisted. In 2004, SARS escaped from the Beijing research lab of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control. Twice.

In 2017, researchers “identified a single population of horseshoe bats that harbors virus strains with all the genetic building blocks of SARS” in Yunnan Province — about 740 miles from Guangdong. In efforts to identify the source of the SARS outbreak, thousands of horseshoe bats and samples of their blood and viruses were collected by . . .  Shi Zheng-Li and Cui Jie of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology kept “hundreds” of samples of coronaviruses found in bats, but the WIV staff insist SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t match any of their samples. Separately, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention collects its own samples of coronavirus in bats; as the Washington Post noted, “a video published in December 2019 shows Tian Junhua, a prominent researcher based at the WHCDC, conducting field research on bats without appropriate protective equipment.” Nonetheless, many continue to insist that the virus must have emerged from some third non-laboratory naturally occurring source involving a species of bats found thousands of miles from the city of Wuhan.

The fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology may have been working with the People’s Liberation Army on “dual-use” research does not automatically mean that the virus is a biological weapon or was intended to be used as a biological weapon. A lot of virus research fits under dual-use, even gain-of-function research, which “enhances the pathogenicity or transmissibility of potential pandemic pathogens” — in other words, makes it more dangerous. Some virologists contend that if you want to know how to stop a deadly and contagious virus, you need to study deadly and contagious viruses in the lab. Others argue that the risk of accidental exposure or release is just too high to make this kind of research worthwhile.

If the Chinese government was researching viruses for potential future use as a biological weapon at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, that might explain the Chinese government’s heavy-handed efforts to suppress news about the outbreak and general suspicion-stirring secrecy since the pandemic started.

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