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.
“The Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assesses foreign scientific researchers who transport undeclared and undocumented biological materials into the United States in their personal carry-on and/or checked luggage almost certainly present a US biosecurity risk,” reads the report. “The WMDD makes this assessment with high confidence based on liaison reporting with direct access.”
The report, which came out more than two months before the World Health Organization learned of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan that turned out to be COVID-19, appears to be part of a larger FBI concern about China’s involvement with scientific research in the U.S. While the report refers broadly to foreign researchers, all three cases cited involve Chinese nationals.
In the case of the suspected SARS and MERS vials, the intelligence report cites another classified document that is marked “FISA,” meaning it contains information collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Another case cited in the report appeared to involve flu strains, and a third was suspected E. coli.
The FBI does not state precisely what sort of biosecurity risk these cases could present, but Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the FBI appears to be concerned with dual-use research that would be used for bioterrorism. And if the illicit samples cited in the report were being brought into the U.S., she says, the traffic is likely to be both ways.
“How do you know what they’re bringing in and out unless you have a comprehensive surveillance point?” she asked. “If it’s going one way, it’s going the other way. You’d be very naive to assume otherwise.”
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding, who worked on China issues on the National Security Council under the Trump administration, said “there is a threat” posed by Chinese nationals carrying biological samples but believes it’s “likely the carrier … would be someone who is unwitting,” making it hard to determine the intent. “Some likely could be deliberate, to test our ability to identify and intercept. Others could be opportunistic,” he said.
The FBI report refers to both biosecurity, which typically refers to the intentional misuse of pathogens, such as for bioterrorism, and biosafety, which covers accidental release. The FBI declined to comment on the report.
Concerns about Chinese biosafety are not new. For example, the SARS outbreak in 2003 was followed by several incidents of infections caused by laboratory accidents, including eight cases that resulted from mishandling at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing.
“There have been cases in the past where a variant of some kind of flu pandemic had escaped from a laboratory because of mismanagement,” said Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
But the problem is not limited to Chinese researchers, even if those cases have been prominent, she continued. “Certainly it is a biosecurity risk when anyone is transporting materials in a manner that is clandestine because … there have been several incidents when this has occurred with researchers of a variety of nationalities.”
Concerns about China’s flouting of biosafety precautions may be long-standing, but the coronavirus pandemic is likely to exacerbate tensions between Beijing and Washington. The outbreak comes amid already rising tensions in U.S.-China relations over issues that range from trade to espionage.
Andrew Weber, who worked during the Obama administration as the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, said the relationship with China in the biological sciences has gotten worse in recent years.
“After SARS, when China needed technical help, it had a strong relationship with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. They were transparent, because they realized covering up an outbreak cost them dearly,” said Weber, now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. “In recent years they’ve tightened up, making international cooperation more difficult.”
In recent weeks, however, these tensions have rapidly boiled over, with President Trump calling COVID-19 “the Chinese Virus,” while Beijing in turn has promoted conspiracy theories claiming the virus originated in a U.S. weapons lab.
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.