“Delete That Comment”
In late October 2017, a US health official from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) arrived at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for a glimpse of an eagerly anticipated work in progress. The WIV, a leading research institute, was putting the finishing touches on China’s first biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory. Operating with the highest safeguards, the lab would enable scientists to study some of the world’s most lethal pathogens.
The project had support from Western governments seeking a more robust partnership with China’s top scientists. France had helped design the facility. Canada, before long, would send virus samples. And in the US, NIAID was channeling grant dollars through an American organization called EcoHealth Alliance to help fund the WIV’s cutting-edge coronavirus research.
That funding allowed the NIAID official, who worked out of the US embassy in Beijing, to become one of the first Americans to tour the lab. Her goal was to facilitate cooperation between American and Chinese scientists. Nevertheless, says Asha M. George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, a nonprofit that advises the US government on biodefense policy, “If you want to know what’s going on in a closed country, one of the things the US has done is give them grant money.”
In emails obtained by Vanity Fair, the NIAID official told her superiors what she’d gleaned from the technician who’d served as her guide. The lab, which was not yet fully operational, was struggling to develop enough expertise among its staff—a concern in a setting that had no tolerance for errors. “According to [the technician], being the first P4 [or BSL-4] lab in the country, they have to learn everything from zero,” she wrote. “They rely on those scientists who have worked in P4 labs outside China to train the other scientists how to operate.”
She’d also learned something else “alarming” from the technician, she wrote. Researchers at the WIV intended to study Ebola, but Chinese government restrictions prevented them from importing samples. As a result, they were considering using a technique called reverse genetics to engineer Ebola in the lab. Anticipating that this information would set off alarm bells in the US, the official cautioned, “I don’t want the information particularly using reverse genetics to create viruses to get out, which would affect the ability for our future information gain,” meaning it would impair the collaboration between NIAID and the WIV.
There was good reason to fear that such a revelation could derail the fledgling partnership. One year earlier, the US Department of Energy had warned other agencies, including NIAID’s parent entity, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that advanced genetic engineering techniques could be misused for malign ends. The Energy Department had developed a classified proposal, reported on here for the first time, to ramp up safeguards against that possibility and develop tools to better detect evidence of genetic engineering. The proposal, which was not implemented in its suggested form, prompted a heated interagency battle, six people with knowledge of the debate tell Vanity Fair.
On January 10, 2018, as the NIAID official prepared her official trip report for the US embassy in Beijing, she wrote to colleagues, “I was shocked to hear what he said [about reverse engineering Ebola]. I also worry the reaction of people in Washington when they read this. The technician is only a worker, not a decision maker nor a [principal investigator]. So how much we should believe what he said?” She concluded, “I don’t feel comfortable for broader audience within the government circle. It could be very sensitive.”
Among the recipients of that email was F. Gray Handley, then NIAID’s associate director for international research affairs. Handley agreed with the official’s assessment and advised her: “As we discussed. Delete that comment.”
On January 19, the US embassy in Beijing issued a sensitive but unclassified cable that included concerning details from the NIAID official’s tour. It said that WIV scientists themselves had noted the “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate” the lab, according to an unredacted copy obtained by Vanity Fair. But the cable did not include the information that her NIAID colleagues apparently found most worrying.