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State Dept. leaders were warned not to investigate China’s Wuhan lab leak COVID theory, former officials say

Wuhan Institute of Virology (Ureem2805/WikiCommons)
June 07, 2021

Former State Department officials told Fox News that the department’s leaders were warned against investigating ties between gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and the origins of COVID-19 due to concerns that such investigative efforts could bring “unwelcome” attention to the U.S. government’s funding for that research.

Officials’ confirmation to Fox News’ follows a new Vanity Fair report last week on an internal State Department memo it obtained from January 2020, written by Thomas DiNanno, the former acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance. DiNanno wrote that his bureau and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, “warned” leaders “not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19” because it would “‘open a can of worms’ if it continued.”

After Vanity Fair’s reporting, multiple former State Department officials told Fox News that DiNanno’s memo accurately described the internal discussions regarding efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19. Those former officials said there was an effort among some other officials within the department to oppose an extensive investigation into a possible lab leak.

President Donald Trump and other members of his administration supported the theory that COVID-19 came from a lab outbreak, but that theory saw initial opposition from the scientific community and the media. In May of last year, Dr. Anthony Fauci told National Geographic, “If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats, and what’s out there now is very, very strongly leaning toward this [virus] could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated.” The fact-checking group PolitiFact also wrote a fact-checking article that described the lab outbreak idea as a “debunked conspiracy theory.”

Vanity Fair reported on Dec. 9, 2020, a group of a dozen State Department officials met in a Foggy Bottom conference room to discuss an upcoming World Health Organization (WHO) fact-finding mission to Wuhan. That discussion turned to the topic of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Christopher Park, the director of the State Department’s Biological Policy Staff in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, urged officials not to say anything that would point to the U.S. government’s own role in gain-of-function research, according to meeting documents obtained by Vanity Fair.

One official told Vanity Fair some of the meeting attendees were “absolutely floored” by Park’s comments.

DiNanno said the advice department officials were getting “smelled like a cover-up, and I wasn’t going to be part of it.”

Early on in the virus outbreak, retired Marine Corps officer and journalist-turned-Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger assembled a COVID-19 origins team run by the NSC directorate that oversaw issues related to weapons of mass destruction. Pottinger told Vanity Fair he purposefully kept the team small because there were so many government officials “wholly discounting the possibility of a lab leak, who were predisposed that it was impossible.”

Pottinger said many of those officials had previously received or approved funding for gain-of-function research. He described those officials as “conflicted” and said they “played a profound role in muddying the waters and contaminating the shot at having an impartial inquiry.”

State Department officials told Vanity Fair that by December, their concern about the lab leak theory had grown so much that they chose to brief Chris Ford, acting undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security. Those officials said Ford had been so hostile to the idea of the lab leak origin, that they described him as “blinkered” and bent on whitewashing China’s malfeasance in the origins of the virus.

Ford told Vanity Fair that he saw his job as one to protect the integrity and legitimacy of U.S. investigative efforts. He said he wanted to avoid “stuff that makes us look like the crackpot brigade.”

DiNanno argued with Ford’s view of the investigation in a Jan. 9, 2021 memo. DiNanno accused Ford of misrepresenting his and other department officials’ efforts to investigate COVID-19.

Ford told Fox News, “I always supported looking at this possibility” that COVID-19 originated from a lab. “But it was also my position from the outset that until we had actually vetted AVC’s [Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance’s] particular scientific allegations of WIV origin with real scientists, we shouldn’t voice them in public, do demarches, or find China in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention over SARS-CoV-2.  It was irresponsible of AVC to try to run with this before ascertaining whether its scientific claims could survive scrutiny.”

Despite the internal pushback, the State Department eventually released a fact-sheet on January 15, detailing the potential connections between the WIV and the COVID-19 outbreak.

Last Month, President Joe Biden directed U.S. intelligence agencies to “redouble” their investigations into the origins of the virus to “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” as to how the viral outbreak began. Biden said the lab outbreak theory is one of the possible origins of the virus that the intelligence community would investigate.