- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 25, 2021

China canceled an online meeting with American officials last year to discuss mounting concerns regarding secret Chinese biological weapons work in possible violation of an international treaty, according to a new report.

The meeting between State Department arms control officials and their Chinese counterparts was planned as a video conference rather than in person because of COVID-19 travel curbs. Chinese officials, citing unspecified technical problems, failed to show for the session, according to an account published this month in the State Department’s annual report on compliance with arms agreements.

It was the first time in four years that Beijing refused to meet with U.S. officials to discuss suspected Chinese violations of the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, known as the BWC, fueling concerns that Beijing is working on weapons that kill with microbes or toxins.

The latest arms compliance report also contains a slight but significant change in wording from last year’s report, suggesting U.S. intelligence agencies have clarified some questions about China’s covert biological warfare work. The 2020 report said China had engaged in activities with potential military applications. The 2021 report omits the word “potential,” indicating that the finding is based on new intelligence regarding the research.

One possible source for the new information is a People’s Liberation Army doctor who defected to a European nation last year with details on Beijing’s biowarfare program. The Washington Times reported the defection in September.

China’s cancellation of the biological warfare meeting was revealed as the COVID-19 pandemic raised new questions about whether the virus behind the disease leaked from a Wuhan laboratory linked to secret Chinese military research.

The annual compliance report examines the records of the U.S. and a number of other states complying with international agreements on nuclear proliferation, chemical and biological weapons, and missile testing. This year’s report had critical remarks on China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Russia and other countries.

A virus lab leak is one of two theories about the origin of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress this month. The second is a leap of the virus from a bat to a host animal and then to humans, although no animal host has been identified so far.

Many scientists have ruled out the idea that the virus was engineered as a biological weapon, but other scientists and some American officials say that prospect should not be dismissed, based on mounting evidence of a covert Chinese military biological warfare program.

Retired Israeli Lt. Col. Dany Shoham, an expert on China’s biological warfare program, stated in an article published in December that the probability of human intervention in creating the coronavirus in a lab is higher than a naturally occurring, spontaneous evolutionary virus adaptation.

A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not return an email seeking comment, though Beijing has long rejected the idea that the Wuhan lab could have been the source of the virus behind the global pandemic.

The compliance report said China appears to be engaged in secret work on germ weapons while keeping details of the work secret.

According to the report, the Chinese military carried out biological activities with dual-use, military-civilian applications. The activities “raise concerns regarding [China’s] compliance with Article I of the [Biological Weapons Convention],” the report said.

Article 1 of the convention binds signatories to “never in any circumstances” produce microbial or biological agents that are not for peaceful use. It also prohibits signatories from making weapons or delivery systems for biological agents or toxins.

China signed the convention in 1984 and under its terms was to disclose all current and past germ weapons efforts.

“The United States has compliance concerns with respect to Chinese military medical institutions’ toxin research and development because of the dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat,” the report states.

China has more than 40 military research institutes run by the People’s Liberation Army that are said to be engaged in covert biological weapons work.

A senior State Department official disclosed last year that secret Chinese biological warfare work includes engineered weapons designed to attack specific ethnic groups with pathogens. “We are looking at potential biological experiments on ethnic minorities,” the official said in May.

‘Genetic attacks’

Statements by Chinese military officials have backed the intelligence on ethnic biological warfare weapons.

Retired Chinese Gen. Zhang Shibo wrote in a 2017 book that biotechnology progress had increased the danger of the use of offensive bioweapons, including those capable of “specific ethnic genetic attacks.”

At a United Nations conference in 2011, a Chinese official made a formal submission for the first time revealing Beijing’s concerns about population-specific bioweapons capable of attacking ethnic groups. The concerns were laid out in a U.N. guidebook based on a 12-nation conference on the BWC in 2011.

U.S. government analysts also do not believe that China has totally eliminated its biological warfare program as required by the convention, the report said. China’s offensive biological weapons program began in the 1950s and continued through the 1980s. Beijing, critics contend, has failed to disclose details as required by the convention.

“As part of its historical BW program, China had probably weaponized ricin, botulinum toxins and the causative agents of anthrax, cholera, plague and tularemia,” said the report, noting continued biotechnology infrastructure and cooperation with unspecified “countries of concern.”

U.S. intelligence analysts contend that the Chinese activities may run counter to the convention’s restrictions that prohibit development, production or stockpiling of biological agents or toxins that are not for peaceful purposes. The canceled online meeting would have clarified some of the questions. The U.S. had been holding annual meetings with the Chinese on the topic from 2017 to 2019.

The State Department in January provided the first public information about Chinese military biological weapons research.

It included a fact sheet on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a complex with secure laboratories that is known to be engaged in research on bat coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19. According to the fact sheet, China’s “deadly obsession with secrecy and control comes at the expense of public health in China and around the world.”

The fact sheet revealed for the first time that several researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in the autumn of 2019 with COVID-like symptoms.

“This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was ‘zero infection’ among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses,” the fact sheet said. “Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one.”

The report also revealed that Chinese researchers at the WIV had been carrying out experiments on a virus called RaTG13, a bat coronavirus that is highly similar to the COVID-19 virus, since 2016.

“The WIV has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses,” the report said. “But the WIV has not been transparent or consistent about its record of studying viruses most similar to the COVID-19 virus, including RaTG13, which it sampled from a cave in Yunnan Province in 2013 after several miners died of SARS-like illness.”

A World Health Organization-Chinese government investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 virus did not mention the State Department facts in its final report. It concluded that the lab leak theory was “highly unlikely” and not worth further scientific study for now.

Thorough accounting

China has consistently and ardently denied that the virus came from a Wuhan laboratory. Critics say China is spreading disinformation about the virus’ origin. Chinese officials have suggested that the virus originated in a U.S. laboratory and was brought to China by visiting American military troops. Beijing also has claimed the virus entered China on frozen food packaging, something experts dismissed as unlikely.

The State Department report said a thorough inquiry into the virus must include a full accounting of why the Wuhan lab apparently altered and removed online records of work on RaTG13 and other viruses. The fact sheet also contended that significant secret military research was being carried out at the Wuhan facility, including laboratory animal experiments on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.

“Secrecy and non-disclosure are standard practice for Beijing,” the report said. “For many years the United States has publicly raised concerns about China’s past biological weapons work, which Beijing has neither documented nor demonstrably eliminated, despite its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.”

The National Institutes of Health in 2015 provided over $3 million in funding to the WIV through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. The Trump administration cut off the funding in April 2020.

The State Department said the United States and other donors that have funded or collaborated with WIV research “have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.”

The report said the disclosures about the institute “just scratch the surface of what is still hidden about COVID-19’s origin in China.”

The compliance report also dealt with other arms control issues and said China continued stepped up work at its Lop Nur nuclear weapons test site in western China. The activities raise concerns that Beijing is secretly conducting nuclear weapons tests contrary to a non-testing moratorium.

“In recent years, China’s possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities have raised concerns regarding its adherence to the U.S. zero-yield standard,” the report said. “China continued work at its Lop Nur nuclear weapons test site throughout 2020.”

China, the report said, also continued to sell missiles and related technology contrary to the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal anti-proliferation accord, and failed to adhere to a 2000 commitment made to the United States not to assist any country in developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons by selling missiles and equipment to Iran in 2020.

Few details were provided.

“Although the United States has asked that China investigate and put a stop to such activities, most of these cases remain unresolved,” the report said.

Sanctions were imposed last year on eight Chinese companies under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act for transferring missile technology to Iran.

A United Nations panel of experts reported several years ago that China provided North Korea with trucks that were converted into transporter-erector launchers for Pyongyang’s long-range nuclear missiles. North Korea’s mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles have been showcased in military parades carried on Chinese-designed road-mobile launchers.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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