Congress urged to revive State probe of COVID-19 origin, Chinese bio-weapons push

Congress should require a new investigation by the State Department’s arms compliance office into the possible role of China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology in the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, a report by two former State Department officials says.

The Biden administration earlier this year canceled a probe begun under President Trump into the virus’s origins by State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, known as AVC, that also investigated Chinese violations of a treaty banning biological arms, said former State Department arms control leaders Thomas DiNanno and Paula A. DeSutter.

“The Biden administration’s ‘don’t ask, don’t act’ policy serves only to empower our enemies, and the State Department bureaucracy has raised the bar so high above the criminal ‘reasonable doubt’ standard that holding our adversaries accountable is now nearly impossible,” Mr. DiNanno and Ms. DeSutter wrote in a new report published by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.

“In the case of the WIV, the preponderance of circumstantial evidence is compelling and cannot be ignored,” the report stated.

China engaged in “blatant violations” of the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations and acted in suspicious and opaque ways regarding the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention’s (BWC) peaceful-purposes clause,” the report said. As a result China gave up a leadership position on the world stage and within organizations such as the WHO and the BWC and “needs to be held to account.”

China has rejected charges that the COVID-19 virus originated in the Wuhan lab and leaked into the general public in late 2019, setting off a global pandemic that has killed millions. Researchers are divided over the origins of COVID-19, with many contending it occurred naturally and passed from an animal host to humans. 

Mr. DiNanno is currently a professional staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and took part in the canceled probe as acting assistant secretary of state for the AVC bureau during the Trump administration. Ms. DeSutter held the same position at the State Department under President George W. Bush, and also served as a professional staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report was published prior to a joint U.S. intelligence community assessment into the virus origin that revealed spy agencies divided over how the pandemic began and were unable to say conclusively whether the pandemic started from a virus that escaped from a Chinese laboratory or emerged naturally from infected animals.

The Defense Intelligence Agency, according to U.S. officials, believes the virus most likely began from an accident or other type of mishap in a Chinese lab. Other spy other agencies believe the virus emerged from an animal host to infect humans, an unclassified summary of the intelligence assessment concluded.

The virus has killed an estimated 4.5 million people worldwide, including over 660,000 Americans.

Critics say China’s government has sought to conceal its mishandling of the disease’s outbreak that began in November 2019. Beijing officials have denied the virus came from one of its laboratories, despite published research indicating extensive work on making bat coronaviruses, like the viruses behind COVID, more infectious to humans.

The canceled AVC investigation was launched by the State Department under then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019 and sought to answer the question of what role the Chinese government virus research program played in Beijing’s biological weapons program.

The investigation also sought to determine if China’s virus research program and the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, represented violations of China’s commitment to the Biological Weapons Convention, which bans research and development of germ weapons.

Mr. DiNanno and Ms. DeSutter said Congress should request that AVC resume its investigation into the origin of the virus that was interrupted by Mr. Biden’s order in May that intelligence agencies should conduct a three-month review.

“In contrast to the U.S. [intelligence community], the [AVC’s] sole function is to assess other nations’ compliance with their international arms control obligations and, moreover, has the legal mandate to do so,” they stated.

Additionally, AVC should make public all information and intelligence on the COVID-19 origin to better assess Chinese compliance with its arms control commitments.

The American intelligence community, according to the report, largely adhered to the theory that the virus originated from animals.

“This may partly be the result of briefings to [intelligence agency] elements conducted by experts promulgating and advocating that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was the result of a zoonotic origin,” the report said.

Chinese civilian and military biological research is a “complex web” reflecting Beijing’s civil-military “fusion” approach, one that calls for sharing all civilian research with the People’s Liberation Army.

“In fact, it would be difficult to say if such a thing as a civilian program as we understand it exists in today’s China,” the report said.

In the fall of 2020, the AVC bureau investigated whether China’s dual-use activities potentially violated the biological weapons agreement.

As a result, the annual State Department arms compliance report stated that “available information shows China engaged in activities that raise concerns with regard to its obligations under Article I of the BWC, which requires States Party ‘never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain …[m]icrobial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.’”

The report also notes that the most recent compliance report produced by the Biden administration mentions concerns about China’s toxin work but omitted earlier report language on concerns about virus research.

“This omission serves as a signal to China and other adversaries and to our allies that the United States is not concerned about the potentially dangerous dual-use research that was being conducted at the WIV and its affiliated facilities,” the report said.

The AVC bureau “must determine the extent of potential Chinese weaponization of viruses,” the report notes.

The report notes that career officials at the State Department dismissed the 2019 AVC investigation as potentially “opening a can of worms” by pursuing question about Chinese arms compliance “when troubling facts began to emerge in [U.S. intelligence] reporting that SARS-CoV-2 may have in fact emanated from the WIV,” the report says.

By shutting down the inquiry earlier this year, the question of Chinese violations of the Biological Weapons Convention is still unanswered, the report says.

A State Department fact sheet on WIV made public in January disclosed the existence of secret military programs inside the WIV.

Additionally, statements by Chinese officials in the past have referred to the pursuit of offensive biological capabilities.

“For example, in 2015, then-president of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences He Fuchu argued that biotechnology would become the new ‘strategic commanding heights’ of national defense, ranging from biomaterials to ‘brain control’ weapons,” the report says.

Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe also has said that U.S. intelligence information has revealed China “conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters