WASHINGTON – At the end of November 2018, just over a year before the first coronavirus case in Wuhan, China, was identified, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stopped a Chinese biologist with three vials labeled “Antibodies” in his at Detroit Metro Airport Luggage.
The biologist told the agents that a colleague in China had asked him to deliver the vials to a researcher at an American institute. However, after checking the vials, the customs officials came to an alarming result.
“Inspection of the writing on the vial and the specified recipient led inspection personnel to believe that the materials contained in the vial may be suitable for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) material,” says an unclassified FBI tactical intelligence report received from Yahoo News.
The report, written by the FBI’s Chemical and Biological Intelligence Department of the WMDD, does not include the name of the Chinese scientist carrying the suspected SARS and MERS samples, nor the intended recipient in the United States The FBI concluded that the incident and two other cases reported in the report were part of an alarming pattern.
“The Directorate of Weapons of Mass Destruction assesses foreign scientific researchers who carry undeclared and undocumented biological material in their own hand luggage and / or checked baggage to the United States, which is almost certainly a US biosecurity risk,” the report said. “The WMDD makes this assessment with a high degree of certainty, based on connection reports with direct access.”
The report, released more than two months before the World Health Organization announced a group of pneumonia cases in Wuhan and turned out to be COVID-19, appears to be part of a major FBI concern about China’s involvement in EU scientific research in the U.S. While the report largely relates to foreign researchers, all three of these cases concern Chinese nationals.
For the suspected SARS and MERS vials, another classified document called “FISA” is cited in the intelligence report, which contains information collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Another case cited in the report appeared to affect flu strains, and a third was suspected to be E. coli.
The FBI doesn’t exactly specify what biosecurity risk these cases could pose, but Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales at Sydney, said the FBI appears to be dealing with dual-use research for bio-terrorism uses. And if the illegal samples mentioned in the report were brought to the United States, the traffic would likely be two-way.
“How do you know what to install and remove unless you have a comprehensive surveillance point?” She asked. “If it goes in one direction, it goes in the other direction. You would be very naive if you accepted something else.”
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding, who worked on Trump issues in the National Security Council under the Trump administration, said Chinese citizens who carry biological samples are “a threat,” but believes that “the carrier … is probably someone who doesn’t know. ” , ”It is difficult to determine the intention. “Some could probably be deliberate to test, identify and intercept our ability. Others could be opportunistic, ”he said.
The FBI report relates to both biosecurity, which typically refers to the deliberate misuse of pathogens, for example for bio-terrorism, and biosecurity, which covers the unintentional release. The FBI declined to comment on the report.
Chinese biosafety concerns are not new. For example, the SARS outbreak in 2003 was followed by several cases of infections caused by laboratory accidents, including eight cases resulting from ill-treatment at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing.
“In the past, there have been cases where a variant of a flu pandemic escaped from a laboratory due to mismanagement,” said Elsa Kania, a senior executive at the Center for a New American Security.
However, the problem is not limited to Chinese researchers, even though these cases were the focus, she continued. “Surely it is a biosecurity risk if someone secretly transports materials because … there have been several incidents where researchers from different nationalities have encountered this.”
Concerns about China’s disregard for biosafety precautions may have been around for a long time, but the coronavirus pandemic is likely to exacerbate tensions between Beijing and Washington. The outbreak is amid growing tensions in US-China relations on issues ranging from retail to espionage.
Andrew Weber, who served as Deputy Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs during the Obama administration, said relations with China in the life sciences have deteriorated in recent years.
“When China needed technical help after SARS, it had a close relationship with the United States [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. They were transparent because they realized that covering up an outbreak cost them a lot of money, ”said Weber, now a senior fellow in the Council on Strategic Risks. “In recent years, they have tightened, which makes international cooperation more difficult.”
However, these tensions have quickly increased in recent weeks. President Trump called COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” while Beijing in turn promoted conspiracy theories claiming the virus came from a US weapons laboratory.
Scientists have insisted that the virus is not a weapon from either the United States or China. “There is no reason to believe that it is a laboratory construct,” said Richard Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. “It doesn’t have any of the expected signatures that would be available for deliberate construction.”
However, Ebright does not rule out that the spread of the virus is due to poor biosecurity in China. A leading theory is that the virus has jumped from wildlife to humans. Some researchers speculate that this happened in a live animal market selling exotic foods. However, Ebright also notes that such wildlife viruses are collected in laboratories, including in Wuhan. “Therefore, it is also possible that this virus may enter the human population due to accidental infection of a laboratory worker performing a field collection or an accident involving a laboratory worker who characterizes the sample in a laboratory,” he said.
Regardless of the corona virus, the FBI’s focus on China’s biosecurity appears to be part of the US government’s long-standing suspicion of China’s involvement in the life sciences. Chinese academics or people with alleged links to the Chinese government have been involved in several recent Justice Department cases that exported sensitive technology.
Most prominently, the Justice Department filed charges in January against Charles Lieber, chairman of the Harvard Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, for obscuring ties to the Chinese government. “It is clearly a conflict of interest, and unfortunately it is not an isolated case,” said FBI special agent Joseph R. Bonavolonta, director of the Boston office, when the charges were announced.
Lieber, who is free for a $ 1 million bond, has not yet filed an objection to the indictment.
However, the FBI’s focus on China and Chinese scientists is also cause for concern among some academics who fear that it smells of profiling. “I am concerned that the current national security trend is to stand out against Chinese people,” said Nicholas Evans, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who specializes in medical ethics. “Not only is this racist, it’s bad practice. The FBI and other intelligence and law enforcement efforts to create a profile have very often been harmful without making us more secure.”
Evans also questioned the FBI’s focus on scientists who carry biological samples as a unique threat by hand. He cited earlier examples, such as a US laboratory in Maine that was fined more than a decade ago for importing highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses from Saudi Arabia.
“The FBI claims that it is impossible to accurately determine the content of samples, even if it is declared under applicable import laws,” he wrote in an email. “That is true. However, I am skeptical of the extent to which this particular behavior jeopardizes security, as there are many other ways of bringing biological organisms into the country.”
Yanzhong Huang, a senior member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said it is true that China has long had gaps in its biosecurity regulations. “That’s why [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] In February there was talk of improving biosecurity and biosecurity legislation, ”he said.
This story has already promoted rumors such as the idea that the corona virus was created as a biological weapon.
Given the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States, Huang expects cooperation in biological research to become even more difficult and to reverse the decades of cooperation. “I often claim that the United States’ public health efforts in China are the most successful,” he said. This collaboration survived the difficult post-Tiananmen protests in 1989.
However, this relationship is now being withdrawn as hostilities between the two countries increase.
“You could argue that health is limitless, especially when two countries face these common challenges. This would be a time for them to work mostly closely together, ”he said. “It turned out not to be the case.”
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Click here for the latest corona virus news and updates. Experts say people over 60 and those with weakened immune systems remain the most at risk. If you have any questions, please contact the CDC and WHO Resource manuals.