The Biden administration ended a Trump-era State Department effort to investigate the possibility that COVID-19 originated in a lab-leak in Wuhan, China over concerns about methodology, according to a new report.
Biden’s team shut down the inquiry, which was launched last fall at the request of then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after receiving briefings on the team’s initial findings in February and March, according to CNN.
Sources told CNN the probe was an effort to investigate whether China’s biological weapons program could have had a greater role in the pandemic’s origin in Wuhan than previously thought.
The investigation sparked a rift in the department: opponents accused those involved in the probe of pursuing a politically motivated effort to find China at fault, while proponents rejected criticisms over the quality of their work and argued their objective had been to examine scientific research and information from the U.S. intelligence community which supported the lab-leak theory.
During a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, testified that they had not been involved in the decision to terminate the investigation. Collins said he had only learned about the decision in the press.
At the time the project began, Pompeo and President Trump had said for months that the virus could have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), though their comments had been dismissed by many as a right-wing conspiracy theory. Further circumstantial evidence has, however, emerged in recent weeks, including a report that three researchers at the WIV were hospitalized with COVID-like symptoms in the fall of 2019.
Investigators relied on scientific research as well as public and classified information to probe the lab leak theory, according to CNN. Sources told the outlet the project looked into whether there was a possible connection between COVID-19 and the Chinese government’s biological weapons program, as the country is involved in major international agreements that regulate biological weapons.
The agreements prohibit developing, producing, transferring or stockpiling bacteriological and toxin weapons, though the U.S. government has said it believes China still ran an offensive biological weapons program after joining the Biological Toxin Weapons Convnetion in 1984. China has denied the allegations.
Senior officials called for a panel of outside scientists to review the project’s findings in the final weeks of the Trump administration. According to the report, when scientists reviewed the data during a 3-hour long meeting in early January, the evidence that had amassed at that point appeared inconclusive and misguided.
Then- Assistant Secretary Chris Ford sent a memo to department officials calling parts of the group’s findings “gravely flawed” and warned officials “against suggesting that there is anything inherently suspicious — and suggestive of biological warfare activity — about People’s Liberation Army involvement at WIV on classified projects.”
David Asher, the contractor who led the investigation, defended the investigation in a statement to Fox News. He said some State Department officials “were deliberately playing down possible links to China’s biological weapons program.”
“It is U.S. law to engage in effective arms control and nonproliferation, not facilitate it via ‘scientific cooperation’ in the name of threat reduction or refusal to engage in effective compliance with Communist countries that openly aim to incorporate synthetic biology into the future of warfare (apparently with our naive material and scientific assistance),” Asher said.
“We don’t know for certain what happened in Wuhan but we had every reason to investigate and ask questions,” Asher continued. “As the State Department’s Jan. 15 statement said – and as additional disclosures and expert analyses of the last few months have underscored – there is probable cause for deep suspicion.”
Asher left the State Department at the end of the Trump administration but had helped draft Pompeo’s January 15 memo on WIV using declassified intelligence.
The memo said WIV collaborated on “secret projects” with China’s military and that “despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects within China’s military” since “at least 2017.”
Asher said that “certainly the Chinese Communist Party engaged in a huge coverup over the stealth ability of COVID to transmit human-to-human.”
“The coverup continues via refusal to allow WHO access, accept CDC offers to assist, and simply tell the truth of this pandemic’s endemic dangerous, incessant and pernicious injurious traits, which has caused huge injury to the American people and citizens of the world, Chinese citizens included,” he said. “Does anyone sane doubt that?”
Asher added that he doesn’t “know why the Biden team would doubt an effort to carry out a fair and accurate investigation into a subject that increasing numbers of leading scientists are now also calling to study.”
“At the State Department in the last months of the last administration we didn’t draw or assert any conclusions, but we worked successfully to reveal certain facts and raise significant questions about the clear plausibility of a lab leak origin,” Asher said. “This was a global public service, and it is good that experts and journalists are increasingly turning their own attention to the issue, albeit belatedly.”
While the Biden administration shuttered the inquiry, it reportedly remains skeptical of China’s efforts to limit investigators’ access to information that may offer clues to the virus’ origin.