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Report: FBI warned of Chinese researchers transporting disease samples in US before coronavirus

Medical workers at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan, China. (Xiong Qi/Xinhua via AP/TNS)
March 31, 2020

Multiple incidents involving Chinese researchers caught transporting highly infectious disease samples in 2018 and 2019 have surfaced in a new report.

An FBI report obtained by Yahoo News revealed U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents stopped a Chinese researcher at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) in September 2019 — just months before the coronavirus outbreak. The researcher was transporting suspected samples of E.coli.

The report also noted two other notable instances of Chinese nationals transporting more serious infectious disease samples.

In November 2018, a Chinese researcher was found with vials in his luggage labeled “antibodies.” The researcher reportedly revealed he had been asked by a colleague in China to transport the samples to a U.S. research institute.

“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,” the FBI tactical intelligence report stated.

Another incident in May 2018 saw a Chinese national stopped while transporting what he described as different influenza strains through DTW. The vials in his possession were marked with the acronym WSN, associated with the H1N1 Swine Flu virus. The vials were confiscated and the Chinese national was released to go to work at a U.S. research institute in Dallas, Texas.

In all three cases, the Chinese nationals did not have supporting documentation declaring their transport of biological materials.

The compiled FBI report was dated to Nov. 13, 2019, just months before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. It was compiled by the Chemical and Biological Intelligence Unit of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD).

Reports have indicated the Chinese government initially attempted to conceal knowledge about the outbreak and spread of COVID-19, a virus similar to SARS and MERS. Cases of COVID-19 first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan and several Chinese medical professionals who warned about the virus were detained early on and reprimanded at times for “spreading rumors” and “harming stability.”

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding, who served as a China policy expert for the National Security Council for President Donald Trump, has warned of Chinese efforts to transport biological materials to the U.S. and has said “Some likely could be deliberate, to test our ability to identify and intercept. Others could be opportunistic.”

The FBI has also raised past concerns about Chinese biosafety. In the FBI’s terminology, biosafety reportedly refers specifically to practices that could cover the accidental release of a virus, as opposed to biosecurity which refers to the intentional misuse of pathogens such as with bioterrorism.

The FBI has noted biosafety incidents in China, such as infections caused by laboratory accidents following the 2003 SARS outbreak.

“There have been cases in the past where a variant of some kind of flu pandemic had escaped from a laboratory because of mismanagement,” Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Yahoo reporters.

The FBI has also brought charges in recent months against U.S. researchers that have concealed their ties with the Chinese government.

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak has led some to speculate the virus was a Chinese biological weapon or the result of a biological accident.

In February, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) tweeted speculation that COVID-19 could have been the result of a Chinese laboratory accident.

Chinese officials have also insinuated the virus was started by the U.S. Army, fueling tensions between the two nations in terms of how the virus is described.