In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department was embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origins of the coronavirus that is now spilling into public view.
In an open letter posted on Medium on Thursday, Christopher Ford, former assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, said he intervened to prevent the US government from “embarrassing and discrediting” itself by accusing China of having deliberately engineered the coronavirus — despite there being no evidence to make that case.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ford said his colleagues were pushing to include allegations that China had breached the international Biological Weapons Convention in a State Department report to Congress, which could have set off a diplomatic crisis with one of the United States' chief global rivals.
It is highly unusual for a former senior State Department official to publish a personal account of recent internal disputes. But Ford’s open letter comes in the midst of an acrimonious debate over the so-called lab-leak hypothesis for the emergence of the virus that causes COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory suggests that Chinese scientists engineered SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon.
Sourcing his account to emails put into the public domain through reporting by Fox News and Vanity Fair, Ford’s Medium post detailed his increasingly fraught relationship with David Asher, a contractor in the State Department who was running its investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, and Thomas DiNanno, former acting head of the department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno viewed Ford as pushing a preconceived conclusion that the virus had a natural origin.
In the Medium post, Ford said that DiNanno signaled that the investigation was focusing on “China allegedly having violated the Biological Weapons Convention by creating the virus.” He added: “They seemed to believe that COVID-19 was a biological weapons (BW) effort gone awry — or perhaps even a BW agent deliberately unleashed upon the world.”
“They clearly appeared to be coming at this from a biological weapons angle,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “They got squirrelly if you pushed back on whether there was evidence to support a biological weaponry finding over the coronavirus, but they seemed to be trying to build a case.”
Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to include the claim that China had breached the Biological Weapons Convention in an annual report prepared for Congress by the State Department. The report, mandated by US law, details nations’ compliance with international agreements on arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.
“Their legal arguments sounded pretty weak to me. They never presented evidence of actual [bioweapons] work,” Ford said, adding that his colleagues were also arguing that China should have been found in breach of the Biological Weapons Convention for failing to fully answer questions about the COVID-19 crisis.
In his open letter, Ford also alleged that Miles Yu, a military historian and specialist on China policy, had told DiNanno that former secretary of state Mike Pompeo wanted to keep the department’s bioweapons experts and the intelligence community out of the loop of the department’s investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Since the spring of 2020, Donald Trump and Pompeo had claimed to have evidence that the virus emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China.
Yu denied the claim that Pompeo had sought to keep experts from reviewing the investigation. “AVC’s inquiry was by no means a rogue and hush-hush operation — it cooperated with our national science labs, world renowned scientists of serious but different opinions, and several key agencies of the intelligence community,” Yu told BuzzFeed News by email. “Chris Ford is spinning a narrative contrary to facts to cover up his extreme hostility toward any worthy science-based inquiry supported and encouraged by Secretary Pompeo.”
Asher also disputed Ford’s account. “I was shocked that Ford didn’t have an investigation going on when I arrived and set about trying to get to the bottom of possible Chinese violations of the [Biological Weapons Convention]. Work that should be continuing in AVC,” he said by email.
DiNanno did not answer questions from BuzzFeed News, referring us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.
The debate over the origins of the virus has intensified since late March, when a joint WHO-China report came up empty-handed yet judged a lab leak as “extremely unlikely.” This prompted the US and 13 other governments to issue a statement calling for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.”
On May 26, President Joe Biden revealed he had ordered a 90-day intelligence review probing two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to people or was released in a lab accident. And in a call with a senior Chinese official Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed China to allow more studies by WHO experts into the origins of the coronavirus.
Leading scientists have also recently called for a deeper investigation into the origins of COVID-19, writing in the journal Science that “the two theories were not given balanced consideration” in the WHO-China study.
Ford is a conservative with a record of being hawkish on the threats posed to the US by China. What triggered his open letter was that his former colleagues had, in his view, mischaracterized him as being inherently opposed to the idea that the coronavirus may have escaped from a lab.
“I strongly supported looking into the ‘lab-leak’ hypothesis, which clearly is a real possibility,” Ford wrote in his Medium post. “But I’m not just saying this now. I said it at the time, too. A lot.”
The lab-leak hypothesis isn’t a single unified theory but, rather, a constellation of ideas around the origins of COVID-19.
Given a history of slipups at virology labs around the world, and a lack of full transparency from China, many scientists accept that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wild animals and released from a lab in Wuhan by accident. Global attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where a team led by Shi Zhengli has cataloged potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats.
More elaborate versions of the theory suppose that scientists at the WIV or another lab in the city were engaged in well-intentioned but risky “gain of function” experiments, genetically modifying a bat coronavirus to study the changes that would make it more likely to infect people.
Suspicion has fallen on Shi because she had earlier collaborated on related experiments run by Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Baric’s team spliced the spike protein from one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which it uses to latch on to the cells it infects, into another coronavirus that had been adapted to infect mice.
Shi has denied running any similar gain-of-function experiments since that research was published in 2015. But secrecy surrounding research at the WIV and other labs means that speculation about this possibility continues.
The most extreme idea, regarded as a conspiracy theory by most experts, is that Chinese military scientists deliberately engineered SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a bioweapon.
In his Medium post, Ford accuses DiNanno of “dragging his feet” over getting the bioweapon claims vetted by the intelligence community and scientific experts. But on Jan. 7 of this year, an online meeting involving scientists including Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who has repeatedly argued that the lab-leak theory deserves thorough investigation, was convened by the State Department to review the evidence.
They heard from Steven Quay, CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who had conducted a statistical analysis that claimed “beyond reasonable doubt” that SARS-CoV-2 was derived in a lab. According to Vanity Fair, Quay’s presentation was criticized by Baric, who noted that his calculations ignored the multitude of bat coronaviruses that remain unknown to science.
In a summary of the meeting Ford sent to State Department colleagues the next day, he wrote, “[H]is statistical analysis is crippled by the fact that we have essentially no data to support key model inputs. Critically, we have no data on the vast majority of bat coronaviruses that exist in the wild.” Ford left the State Department the same day, after having previously announced his intention to step down.
DiNanno later responded, “On the contrary, we don’t need to know every bat coronavirus genome to understand the likelihood of a zoonotic [natural] vs. lab origin. We merely need to reliably estimate the number of bat coronaviruses there are, and factor this into our weighting of our present knowledge about bat coronaviruses.”
Baric and Relman did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Quay defended his statistical analysis, saying it has been viewed online over 160,000 times. “I have received no substantive criticism of my work,” he said. “My sense of the meeting was that they were trying as much as possible to simply dismiss me so they could write their report and move on to something else.”
On Jan. 15, Pompeo’s State Department released a “fact sheet” on activities at the WIV, which criticized China’s secrecy around COVID-19.
Instead, it stated, based on intelligence reports, that the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
The fact sheet also repeated long-standing US concerns about China’s transparency about its past research on bioweapons: “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.” And it said the WIV had collaborated on classified research on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.
But the statement did not make the claim that SARS-CoV-2 was the product of Chinese bioweapons research.