NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The State Department terminated a scientific inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 that was launched during the Trump administration, in part over concerns the inquiry would upset China.
The department denied a report that it had ended the scientific probe, but people familiar with the matter said that the entire team that was conducting the investigation during the Trump administration were reassigned to other bureaus not related to the virus origin controversy when the Biden administration took office.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the new administration for the action.
“President Biden sides with China, WHO and the liberal media on Wuhan virus — joining the ‘nothing to see here crowd’ by shutting down State Dept. pandemic origin investigation I commenced,” Mr. Pompeo tweeted Wednesday.
“This isn’t political. America must lead on this,” he added.
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, said Wednesday he has directed intelligence agencies to conduct a three-month inquiry into how the virus behind the pandemic began, noting what is currently known is insufficient to provide a clear answer.
Mr. Biden said an earlier assessment indicated the spy services are divided over whether virus occurred naturally or escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, the site of the first major COVID-19 outbreak.
“I have now asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days,” Mr. Biden said.
The presidential review comes as House Republicans last week accused intelligence agencies of suppressing unwelcome views on the virus origin and other failures related to the outbreak. The inquiry shutdown was first reported by CNN even as scientists and mainstream news outlets have reversed course in recognizing the virus behind COVID could have escaped from a laboratory, rather than originating naturally in animals.
According to people familiar with the internal dispute over the virus origin, the State Department’s arms control, verification and compliance directorate, known as AVC, took the lead in releasing the first details on what intelligence officials believe was probably a laboratory leak of the virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The intelligence was made public in a State Department fact sheet in January that revealed reports that workers at the WIV had been sickened with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019 — a month before the first case was made public.
The information also revealed that the WIV has been working since at least 2017 with the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military, in laboratory animal experiments while engaged in covert biological weapons work. The WIV was also engaged in deadly virus-altering research, and had worked on a virus that is 96% similar to the virus behind the pandemic.
Before the intelligence was released, however, Chris Ford, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, tried to block AVC from releasing the information publicly over concerns doing so would “open a can of worms” and upset U.S.-China relations.
People familiar with the dispute said Mr. Ford was reflecting concerns of pro-China State Department officials and those in the intelligence community who opposed the lab leak theory in favor of the now questionable theory the virus originated from animals.
Mr. Ford at one point attempted to disrupt and discredit a meeting of prominent outside experts working on the virus origin by injecting a political bias to what was meant to be a nonpartisan scientific inquiry discussion, said two people close the issue.
An aide to Mr. Ford, Christopher Park, warned Thomas DiNanno, AVC director during the Trump administration, not to make public the information in the fact sheet.
When Mr. Pompeo learned of the attempted cover-up, he ordered the information released and said learning the origin of the virus was crucial.
Mr. Ford resigned in protest — not over the virus origin dispute — but in opposing what he said were some in the Trump administration willing to condone the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
“I was pushing very hard to ask tough questions of the PRC about how the virus began. It’s critical to do so!” Mr. Ford told Inside the Ring, acknowledging he opposed what he said was AVC work that was “bad science.”
Mr. Ford said AVC was “pitching a statistical analysis supposedly showing [a] biological weapons connections but that utterly fell apart when real scientists looked at it.”
However, others challenged Mr. Ford’s account. In fact, one of the scientists involved in the AVC assessment who believed at the time the virus came from animals has changed his view and now believes a lab leak is the leading theory.
A former State Department official involved in the dispute said the science behind the lab leak theory “didn’t crumble.”
“If the science crumbled, it certainly looks like it’s been put back together,” the official said.
Mr. Ford, the people close to the issue said, opposed all efforts by the AVC bureau to uncover the virus origin, even before claiming there was a debate over the statistical analysis.
“Chris Ford was opposed to the inquiry from the beginning and it had nothing to do with a particular analysis,” a close aide to Mr. Pompeo said. “He’s trying to cover up his opposition for partisan reasons.”
Mr. Ford said he urged senior officials “not to claim that WIV was inherently suspicious just because classified PLA research was done there.” He said it was a “silly argument” that could be used by China to claim U.S. Army biodefense research at Fort Detrick is part of biological weapons work.
“My push supported asking tough questions of China about COVID-19 by protecting U.S. question-askers from being seen as cranks,” he said.
However, Mr. Ford opposed plans to issue a diplomatic demarche to Beijing asking whether its extensive bat virus research was in line with limits imposed by Biological Weapons Conventions, which bans offensive biological weapons. China is a signatory.
The demarche was supported by then-Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell but blocked from ever being issued by Mr. Ford.
On whether releasing the WIV information would open a can of worms, the adviser to Mr. Pompeo said: “That may be, but the truth [about the virus origin] may be in that can of worms and it must be opened.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price called CNN’s reporting that the department shut down the COVID inquiry “incorrect.”
Mr. Price said that after AVC and the Policy Planning staff briefed the new administration and presented a report, its “work was ended.”
“All relevant parts of the department continue to work with the interagency on this matter,” Mr. Price said in a statement. “The world continues to have serious questions about the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, including its origins within the People’s Republic of China.”
CNN reported the work was stopped in part because Biden administration officials had doubts about the quality of the science done in the State Department probe.
Beijing’s announcement that its role in the probe is completed is “disappointing” and contrary to the rest of the world that seeks an end to the pandemic and improvement in health security, he said.
China on lab leak
Chinese propaganda went into overdrive this week following mounting news reports bolstering the theory that the virus behind the pandemic escaped from a Chinese laboratory.
The director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Yuan Zhiming, denied the virus escaped from the laboratory, although he provided no evidence to refute reports that lab workers were sickened with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019.
Mr. Yuan called The Wall Street Journal report on the hospitalization of the lab workers “a complete lie” and insisted in Chinese state media that “the lab has not been aware” of sick workers in the autumn of 2019.
Fresh news reports on the laboratory escape theory come as the World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly is set to discuss the next phase for research into the virus’s origin. A joint Chinese government-WHO team earlier this year rejected the lab leak theory and said no further probing should be done.
WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus disagreed with that WHO finding and called for further study.
Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party-linked outlet, this week repeated the propaganda position that the virus was transmitted from animals to humans, or from frozen-food packaging.
Two experts on Chinese affairs said Beijing has employed three lines of attack regarding the virus origin.
First, the Chinese government has promoted the notion the virus originated outside China, a line that is ineffective despite massive state media repetition along with many Western media supporters.
Next, the Chinese began promoting a vague possibility of a laboratory leak as something “accidental” — in an apparent bid to avoid the harsh accountability for the deaths of more than 3.3 million people worldwide that would come from poor laboratory security. Beijing also is seeking to prevent calls for reparations to global economies damaged by the pandemic.
The last line is an attack on the suggestion that the virus was purposefully released or at least allowed to spread globally so that China would not be the only nation afflicted.
This possibility is being the most vehemently denied at all costs by Chinese officials since confirmation of such an action would result in incalculable damage to Chinese Communist Party and impact Chinese President Xi Jinping the most.
Chinese state media also have begun attacking the Biden administration’s pandemic response leader, Anthony Fauci, who recently expressed new openness to the lab-leak theory.
“Fauci attempted to hype the old and groundless narrative that the virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan,” Global Times reported. “This is a blatant lie, a conspiracy created by U.S. intelligence agencies and the media outlet to slander China, and China has denied it. Is it a coincidence that Fauci repeated such lines?”
⦁ Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.