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Amid New Calls for COVID Origin Probe, Lawmakers in US, Canada Scrutinize Use of Federal Resources in Wuhan Lab

Brittany Jordan

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News Analysis

Amid new calls for a transparent investigation into the origin of COVID-19, a parallel situation is unfolding in both Canada and the United States, where lawmakers are seeking clarity on how their federal resources provided to the Wuhan virology research facility were used.

In the United States, the controversy is around a US$3.7 million grant given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance for “understanding the risk of bat coronavirus emergence,” of which US$600,000 was channelled to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) over a period of five years.

In Canada, mystery surrounds the firing of 2018 Governor General’s Innovation Award winner scientist Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, along with Qiu’s several trips to the WIV, the transfer of deadly viruses from the NML to the WIV, and the NML’s collaboration with Chinese military scientists.

The WIV is the only lab facility in China rated level 4, the highest level of biosafety, indicating that it’s equipped to handle the deadliest infectious viruses. Winnipeg’s NML is also the only level 4 lab in Canada.

Lab Safety Level

In the final days of the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department issued a fact sheet saying that several WIV researchers became ill with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses in autumn 2019, before the Chinese regime officially declared the first case of the illness.

“This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was ‘zero infection’ among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses,” the State Department said.

A passenger wearing a protective gear and a face mask waits in line at an airline counter at Tianhe airport in Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province on May 23, 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

A Wall Street Journal report published on May 23 said that, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report, three WIV researchers sought hospital care with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019, about a month before the regime identified the first case of the disease.

Those cases gave the issue of safety levels observed at the Wuhan lab greater importance.

In an interview with Science Magazine, Shi said her group’s research on coronavirus is performed at safety levels 2 or 3.

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at the Rutgers University and a lab biosafety expert, says performing research on bat coronaviruses in level 2 safety environments poses great risk to personnel.

“[T]he bat-SARS-related-coronavirus projects at the Wuhan Institute of Virology used personal protective equipment (usually just gloves; sometimes not even gloves) and biosafety standards (usually just biosafety level 2) that would pose very high risk of infection of field-collection, field-survey, or laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2 [the virus causing COVID-19],” Ebright told the Independent Science Review.

The nature of the work at the WIV was serious enough for U.S. Embassy diplomats in Beijing to visit the facility several times in late 2017 and early 2018, the Washington Post reported. In cables sent to Washington, the diplomats reported that WIV scientists have found a number of new bat coronaviruses that could infect humans and warned that the lab didn’t meet top safety standards.

Nicholas Wade, an author and science journalist, questions the wisdom of U.S. government grants funding high-risk research at foreign labs that don’t observe adequate safety precautions.

“Whether or not SARS2 [SARS-CoV-2] is the product of that research, it seems a questionable policy to farm out high-risk research to foreign labs using minimal safety precautions. And if the SARS2 virus did indeed escape from the Wuhan institute, then the NIH will find itself in the terrible position of having funded a disastrous experiment that led to the death of more than 3 million worldwide, including more than half a million of its own citizens,” Wade wrote in a May 5 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The issue of lab safety level at the WIV has also been raised in Canada’s Parliament.

Epoch Times Photo
Conservative MP Michael Chong rises during question period in the House of Commons on March 26, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

During a May 10 meeting of the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations, Michael Chong, Conservative shadow minister for foreign affairs, pointed out that Qiu travelled to China to meet with WIV personnel to establish a level 4 safety lab, and that the pandemic emerged from Wuhan.

“Dr. Qiu trained people at the Wuhan Institute of Virology so that it could be registered as a level 4 lab, the only level 4 lab in China. Why is that relevant? It’s because the State Department of our closest ally and trading partner said earlier this year that the standards at the lab were not upheld, that they weren’t operating to level 4 criteria, that they were often operating with very dangerous viruses at level 2 or level 3,” Chong said.

In an interview with The Epoch Times, Chong said it’s important for parliamentarians to learn more about the NML and Qiu’s co-operation with WIV.

“If the intelligence community concludes that the virus did emerge from the lab in Wuhan, then the role that the Canadian government lab in Winnipeg played in helping build that lab becomes a critical question,” he said.

Gain-of-Function Studies

One of the questions surrounding the WIV has been about gain-of-function (GoF) studies and whether Canadian or American resources were involved in any such research.

GoF research involves increasing the lethal level (virulence) or transmissibility of pathogens in order to better understand and predict the emergence of disease-causing agents so that a solution can be devised before the disease emerges as a pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gives an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss the on-going federal response to COVID-19, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on May 11, 2021. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

Both the NIH and its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)—which funded the EcoHealth Alliance research—deny ever having approved any grants for GoF research on coronaviruses. EcoHealth Alliance also denies channelling NIH money for GoF research and gave The Washington Post’s Fact Checker a definition of GoF that reads, “gain of function research is the specific process of altering human viruses in order to increase their ability (the titular gain of function) either to spread amongst populations, to infect people, or to cause more severe illness.”

But some dispute this narrow definition, saying instead that GoF doesn’t only apply to “human viruses” but to all viruses.

The NIH has been listed as a funding source on papers published based on work at the WIV that enhance the transmissibility of coronaviruses.

“The research was—unequivocally—gain-of-function research,” scientist Ebright told The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) insists that U.S. funding was used for GoF in Wuhan.

“While many still deny funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, experts believe otherwise,” Paul said in a May 25 statement.

NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci refutes this claim and defends the use of U.S. funding in studying coronavirus transmission from bats to humans in China, saying it generates important knowledge as to what happened with the SARS disease in order to help prevent future pandemics.

“Clearly the bats that have … the coronaviruses are in China. As I’ve said a couple of times, it’s not in Fairfax County, Virginia, or … in New York, it’s in China,” Fauci said at a U.S. Senate hearing on May 26.

The Trump administration terminated NIH funding to EcoHealth Alliance for its research at the WIV in April 2020. However, it reinstated the grant in July that year but required all activities to remain suspended until the lab met certain conditions.

Paul was among a group of senators who sponsored an amendment to a bill to ban the funding of any GoF research in China. The U.S. Senate passed the bill on May 25.

Epoch Times Photo
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 16, 2020. (Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

The amendment defines GoF as “any research project that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity or transmissibility in mammals.”

Fauci was challenged about GoF work at the Wuhan labs using his own definition during the U.S. Senate hearing on May 26. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked how Fauci can be sure the Chinese side “didn’t lie to you and use the money for gain-of-function research anyway?”

Fauci conceded that “there’s no way of guaranteeing” that the Chinese side did not conduct GoF research with U.S. funding in secret. He added that the Chinese recipients of the grants for Wuhan lab research are “very competent, trustworthy scientists.”

A somewhat similar conversation played out during a Canadian parliamentary committee meeting in March, at which MPs asked the head of Winnipeg’s NML whether any GoF research was done with deadly virus samples that had been sent to the WIV a year earlier.

In March 2019, NML scientist Qiu had arranged to send samples of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China, according to CBC. Lab authorities say that no coronavirus samples have been sent to WIV.

During a meeting of the Canada-China relations committee on March 22, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis asked whether the Chinese side conducts any GoF research with the deadly viruses shipped from Canada. NML’s acting scientific director general Guillaume Poliquin replied that Canada wouldn’t approve sending samples for such experiments.

Poliquin said one of the essential aspects of the transfer process for viruses is that the NML must receive a letter expressing the intent of the receiving institute.

Epoch Times Photo
Conservative MP John Williamson rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on April 13, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Conservative MP John Williamson pressed further, asking whether such a letter is regarded as “the truth and nothing but the truth,” and if NML does any investigation to ensure the Chinese side is being honest about its intent.

Poliquin responded by relaying the WIV’s expressed intended use, saying the institute wanted to understand “the nature of infection” and help in the development of antivirals, and that further probe into the lab isn’t possible.

“Neither Canada nor the National Microbiology Laboratory has the standing to investigate or audit laboratories,” Poliquin said.

Williamson called the response “an astonishing admission.”

“You’re taking a request from a nation that has a history of theft and lies, and accepting that because it’s what the law in this country says, that this is sufficient, at a time when our national security institutes are warning academia in general to be very careful,” he said.

China Ties

NIH grant recipient EcoHealth Alliance is one of eight organizations, along with the World Health Organization, listed on the WIV’s website in the partnership section. It’s the WIV’s only partner in North America.

The non-profit research organization has had “professional and financial ties” with WIV’s researcher Shi since at least 2003, according to an April 16 letter issued by Republican senators to EcoHealth Alliance’s head Peter Daszak asking him questions related to the virus origin. Shi, nicknamed “bat woman” by her peers, leads the research on bat coronaviruses at the WIV.

Virus Outbreak China WHO Mission
Peter Daszak (C) and other members of the World Health Organization team leave after attending an exhibition about the fight against COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 30, 2021. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Daszak is one of the co-authors of a statement published early in the virus outbreak, on Feb. 19, 2020, in the influential medical journal The Lancet, that dismissed any suggestion besides a natural origin for the virus as a conspiracy theory. The co-authors declared “no competing interests” in the statement even though Daszak’s organization was channelling U.S. government funding to the WIV.

There’s a revival of calls in the scientific and intelligence community noting that a natural origin for the virus has not been confirmed and that a lab leak hypothesis can’t be dismissed. On May 26, U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement that he has tasked the U.S. Intelligence Community with investigating the issue further to “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” and to report back in 90 days.

Documents obtained by the non-profit investigative research group U.S. Right to Know show that Daszak and his EcoHealth Alliance were the main organizers of the statement in The Lancet.

After Fauci downplayed the theory that the virus could have come from a lab last year, Daszak sent him an email thanking him for his position, documents recently released to several media outlets under  freedom of information requests show.

“I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators, for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Daszak wrote to Fauci on April 18, 2020.

“Many thanks for your kind note,” Fauci wrote back.

Daszak was also part of a WHO team that investigated the virus origin earlier this year, which said a lab leak theory was “extremely unlikely.” The WHO’s assessment was contradicted by several scientists and even WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said further investigation is needed.

Daszak said in a 2018 conference sponsored by a Chinese state media outlet that his organization has received money from the Chinese regime in addition to the United States.

The Epoch Times reached out to Daszak and EcoHealth Alliance for comment but didn’t hear back.

Epoch Times Photo
The National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg on May 19, 2009. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

In the case of the NML in Winnipeg, Qiu, Cheng, and several Chinese students were escorted out of the lab on July 5, 2019, amid an RCMP investigation. The scientist couple was later formally fired in January 2021.

Qiu organized the transfer of Ebola and Henipah from the NML to the WIV in March 2019, according to CBC. The Public Health Agency of Canada has said the couple’s dismissal is not connected to the virus shipment and described the reason as being due to a “policy breach.”

Despite repeated requests by MPs on the Canada-China parliamentary committee, so far the government hasn’t released details to parliamentarians as to why the two scientists were removed. Besides releasing a set of heavily redacted documents, which the opposition MPs say don’t provide substantive details, the government says it cannot provide additional information due to confidentiality and privacy obligations.

On June 2, opposition MPs outvoted the governing Liberals to pass a Conservative motion demanding the release of documents related to the firing of the scientists from the NML to parliamentarians.

Qiu, who has a medical degree from the Hebei Medical University and a masters from the Tianjin Medical University, reportedly moved to Canada in 1996.

During her time at the NML, she travelled several times to China in an official capacity and helped train personnel at WIV on level 4 safety. Citing documents obtained under freedom of information requests, the National Post reports that Qiu travelled to Wuhan in September 2017 and that she was invited to provide training “for 7–14 days per trip, twice a year for two years.”

According to a May 12 article in The Globe and Mail, prior to their removal from the NML, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had urged the removal of the couple’s security clearances due to national security concerns related to their work with the WIV. Citing a federal source, the Globe said CSIS was concerned about the nature of information that was being passed on to the Wuhan lab and about intellectual property being compromised.

A major revelation was made in a May 20 article by the Globe about collaborations that have taken place between seven NML scientists and Chinese military researchers. One of the researchers, a member of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences of China’s People’s Liberation Army, worked at the NML for a period of time. This was highly criticized by opposition MPs after it came to light.

“How could scientists with deep connections to the Chinese military be able to gain access to a high-level Canadian security-cleared laboratory with the world’s most dangerous viruses?” MP Williamson asked in the House of Commons on June 1.

The Epoch Times contacted Qiu and Cheng for comment but didn’t hear back.

With reporting by Frank Fang and Jack Phillips and a file from The Associated Press

Brittany Jordan is an award-winning journalist who reports on breaking news in the U.S. and globally for the Federal Inquirer. Prior to her position at the Federal Inquirer, she was a general assignment features reporter for Newsweek, where she wrote about technology, politics, government news and important global events around the world. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Toronto Star, Frederick News-Post, West Hawaii Today, the Miami Herald, and more. Brittany enjoys food, travel, photography, and hoarding notebooks and journals. Her goal is to do more longform features journalism, narrative writing and documentary work, and to one day write a successful novel and screenplay.

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