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State Department Memo: The Wuhan Institute of Virology Wasn’t Operating Safely

Volunteers in protective suits being disinfected in a line in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, February 22, 2020. (China Daily via Reuters)

The U.S. State Department has now released two partially redacted versions of unclassified memos written by American officials who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology and who came away with concerns about the laboratory’s safety protocols and practices in 2018.

The first memo, dated January 19, 2018, states that the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s “current productivity is limited by a shortage of the highly trained technicians and investigators required to safely operate a [Biosafety Level] 4 laboratory and lack of clarity in related Chinese government policies and guidelines.” It later elaborates that the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston has one of several well-established BSL-4 labs in the U.S. and collaborates with the Wuhan Institute, and is reportedly helping train the technicians in Wuhan.

Perhaps the most intriguing section of that memo discusses the facility’s research into the origins of the original SARS virus. “Over a five-year study, [redacted] and their research team widely sampled bats in Yunnan province with funding support from NIAID/NIH, USAID, and several Chinese funding agencies . . . it demonstrated that SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from horseshoe bat in a single cave contain all the building blocks of the pandemic SARS-coronavirus genome that caused the human outbreak. These results strongly suggest that the highly pathogenic SARS-coronaviruses originated in this bat population.” The memo noted that the research “strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like disease” and concluded that “study of the human-animal interface was critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

The second memo, dated April 19, 2018, elaborates with more specific details about the lab’s work and another visit from U.S. officials in March, including U.S. consul general Jamie Fouss and Rick Switzer, the embassy’s counselor of environment, science, technology, and health. The memo noted that the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s “English brochure highlighted a national security role, saying that it ‘is an effective measure to improve China’s availability in safeguarding national bio-safety if [a] possible biological warfare or terrorist attack happens.”

Josh Rogin of the Washington Post first reported about the existence of these memos in April, but this is the first we in the public can read the full memos for ourselves.

These memos do not prove that SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was caused by a laboratory accident. But they do dispel one of the less-plausible arguments against the lab-accident theory, that the Chinese scientists working at WIV were simply too professional and diligent to ever have an accident that released a contagious virus. There are simply too many documented cases of accidents at highly respected labsincluding ones in China — to hand wave away that possibility. Now we know that American scientists were concerned about safely in one of these specific labs, which was researching SARS-like coronaviruses in bats, roughly one year before the outbreak of a SARS-like coronavirus similar to those found in bats in the same city. If it is a coincidence, it is a remarkable one.

Yet we are unlikely to ever know the origin of this virus for certain. We do know that in the crucial early weeks of the pandemic, both the local Wuhan officials and the national Chinese government wanted their citizens and the world to know as little as possible about the virus and ordered the destruction of any available data, which is a strange and self-destructive act if the city and country were dealing with a virus that naturally jumped from an animal to a human being. For an event that was not a lab accident, local and national officials sure enforced a coverup like it was.

In late January and early February, the Chinese government ordered all labs processing samples of the strange new virus to destroy them:

As early as Dec. 27, a Guangzhou-based genomics company had sequenced most of the virus from fluid samples from the lung of a 65-year old deliveryman who worked at the seafood market where many of the first cases emerged. The results showed an alarming similarity to the deadly SARS coronavirus that killed nearly 800 people between 2002 and 2003.

Around that time, local doctors sent at least eight other patient samples from hospitals around Wuhan to multiple Chinese genomics companies, including industry heavyweight BGI, as they worked to determine what was behind a growing number of cases of unexplained respiratory disease. The results all pointed to a dangerous SARS-like virus.

On Jan. 1, after several batches of genome sequence results had been returned to hospitals and submitted to health authorities, an employee of one genomics company received a phone call from an official at the Hubei Provincial Health Commission, ordering the company to stop testing samples from Wuhan related to the new disease and destroy all existing samples. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were told to immediately cease releasing test results and information about the tests, and report any future results to authorities.

Then on Jan. 3, China’s National Health Commission (NHC), the nation’s top health authority, ordered institutions not to publish any information related to the unknown disease, and ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions, or to destroy them. The order, which Caixin has seen, did not specify any designated testing institutions.

It would be another seventeen days before the Chinese government admitted that the virus could be spread from one human being to another. China later contended the order to destroy the samples was intended to prevent any accidental releases of the virus . . . the kind of accidental release that they insist couldn’t have happened because their scientists are too careful and professional.

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