Onion layers being peeled away…
Suspected SARS virus and flu samples found in luggage: FBI report describes China’s ‘biosecurity risk’
WASHINGTON — In late November 2018, just over a year before the first coronavirus case was identified in Wuhan, China, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Detroit Metro Airport stopped a Chinese biologist with three vials labeled “Antibodies” in his luggage.
The biologist told the agents that a colleague in China had asked him to deliver the vials to a researcher at a U.S. institute. After examining the vials, however, customs agents came to an alarming conclusion.
“Inspection of the writing on the vials and the stated recipient led inspection personnel to believe the materials contained within the vials may be viable Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) materials,” says an unclassified FBI tactical intelligence report obtained by Yahoo News.
The report, written by the Chemical and Biological Intelligence Unit of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD), does not give the name of the Chinese scientist carrying the suspected SARS and MERS samples, or the intended recipient in the U.S. But the FBI concluded that the incident, and two other cases cited in the report, were part of an alarming pattern.
Scientists have been adamant that the virus is not a weapon, either from the United States or China. “There’s no basis to suspect it’s a laboratory construct,” says Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. “It has none of the expected signatures that would be present for deliberate construction.”
However, Ebright doesn’t exclude the possibility that the virus’s spread started from poor biosecurity in China. A leading theory is that the virus jumped from wildlife to humans. Some researchers speculate this happened at a live-animal market where exotic species are sold for food. But Ebright also notes that such wildlife viruses are collected in laboratories, including in Wuhan. “Therefore, it’s also a possibility that this virus entered the human population through accidental infection of a lab worker carrying out field collection, or an accident by a lab worker characterizing the sample in a laboratory,” he said.
Independent of the coronavirus, the FBI’s focus on China’s biosecurity appears to be part of long-standing suspicion in the U.S. government about China’s involvement in the biological sciences. Several recent high-profile Justice Department cases involving the export of sensitive technology have involved Chinese scientists, or persons with alleged ties to the Chinese government.
Most prominently, the Justice Department in January announced charges against Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, for concealing ties to the Chinese government. “It’s a clear-cut case of a conflict of interest, and unfortunately, it’s not an isolated incident,” said FBI special agent Joseph R. Bonavolonta, head of the Boston field office, in announcing the charges.
Lieber, who is free on a $1 million bond, has not yet entered a plea on the charges.