With records of 'lab-created coronaviruses' incidents, supervision loopholes, and audacious germ researchers, what really happened in US' UNC and Fort Detrick labs?
Published: Aug 18, 2021 08:23 PM Updated: Aug 18, 2021 11:50 PM
Some biological laboratories in the US, including the infamous Fort Detrick lab, and a lab at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, led by well-known US coronavirus disease expert Ralph Baric, have become the focus of public suspicion in the search for the origins of COVID-19, with many observers pointing to their poor safety record and unwillingness of researchers to speak publicly.  

Ralph Baric's team is the authority when it comes to [coronavirus disease] research, with widely recognized capability in synergizing and modifying coronaviruses, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, urging the US to invite World Health Organization (WHO) experts to investigate the UNC facility. "A probe into Baric's team and lab would clarify whether coronavirus research had created or will create SARS-CoV-2," Zhao said during a press conference in late July.

The international community clearly views the US, which has been hyping up the "lab-leak theory" and engaging in groundless attacks against China, as a major suspect responsible for leaking of COVID-19, one insider told the Global Times.

With a more [mature] environment of lab virus synthesizing and operation, as well as virus leakage cases in history, COVID-19 was obviously more likely leaked from US labs if the lab leak claim is true, said a Chinese biosecurity specialist Li (pseudonym), who works at a research institute in East China.

"We appeal to the WHO to put US labs, including the one located at UNC, into its second phase of investigation," Li told the Global Times.

Biological Science Specialist Reginald Clyburn puts on biosafety 4 protective clothing for handling viral diseases at US Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick on March 19, 2020. Photo: AP

Biological Science Specialist Reginald Clyburn puts on biosafety 4 protective clothing for handling viral diseases at US Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick on March 19, 2020. Photo: AP

Frequent lab-created accidents at UNC

The terrible safety records of American biological labs showed a possibility of a virus escaping from an American lab. 

High-security labs at UNC have developed a reputation for their frequent accidents, attributed to lax safety procedures. The lab at UNC-Chapel Hill reported 28 lab incidents involving genetically engineered organisms to officials at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) from January 2016 to June 2020, according to ProPublica, a nonprofit news website based in New York City.

Six of the incidents involved "various types of lab-created coronaviruses," according to an article published by ProPublica on August 2020. "Many were engineered to allow the study of the virus in mice," it added.

The six coronavirus-related accidents reported by UNC were filled with basic errors and incorrect remedial measures, the Global Times found.

In August 2015, for instance, a mouse that had been infected with an undisclosed type of "mouse adapted" virus squirmed free from a researcher's gloved hand and onto the lab floor. NIH officials told ProPublica it was a type of "SARS-associated coronavirus." Workers involved in the incident were asked to report their temperatures and any symptoms for 10 consecutive days.

In April 2020, a mouse flipped over in a researcher's hand and bit an index finger through two layers of gloves. The mouse bite caused potential exposure to a strain of SARS-CoV-2, which had been adapted for growth in mice, the UNC report said. Nonetheless, instead of being placed into medical quarantine, the researcher only undertook 14 days of self-isolation at home, according to ProPublica. 

It was more likely that UNC labs inadvertently leaked the virus through accidents which infected humans, although the possibility was theoretically small, Li said. 

"A single incident like the UNC reported could hardly cause immediate virus evolution or a wide spread," Li told the Global Times, "but there is the possibility that the leakage has led to a modified virus spread among humans - potentially up to several hundred of people - through a period of time, and that the virus evolved during human-to-human or human-to-animal transmissions."

Students walk through the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 18. Photo: AFP

Students walk through the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 18. Photo: AFP

Suspicious shutdown of Fort Detrick lab

Similar to the UNC labs, many point to the shutdown of Fort Detrick lab in July 2019, which US media said was due to the lack of "sufficient systems in place to decontaminate wastewater" from its highest-security labs.

However, in early June, a Virginia-based Twitter user claimed he got the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documents on the inspection of Fort Detrick under The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The emails revealed several violations at the Fort Detrick lab during the CDC's inspections in 2019. Four of which were labeled serious violations.

One of these serious violations, the CDC said, was one inspector who entered a room multiple times without the required respiratory protection while other people in that room were performing procedures with a primate on a necropsy table. This deviation from entity procedures resulted in a respiratory occupational exposure to select agent aerosols, according to the CDC's document.

Other violations included lack of proper waste management where waste wasn't transported in a durable leak proof container, which creates the potential for spills or leaks.

The management of such high-level labs in general must be very strict with regular inspections. Various systems should be able to ensure that no potential risks can occur, and equipment failure and wastewater leakage certainly should not occur, a Chinese scientist from the WHO-China virus origins tracing team who requested anonymity told the Global Times.

The wastewater problems revealed major loopholes in the management at the Fort Detrick lab, and one has to wonder what else was leaked with the mismanaged wastewater.

"Some highly pathogenic pathogens in the laboratory were likely released. And the US military never told the public about what they were doing," the scientist said.

It is highly likely that researchers at Fort Detrick may have been infected accidentally but showed no obvious symptoms. In this way they could have brought the virus to the outside world, the scientist said.

A member of the Frederick Police Department Special Response Team peers out of a minivan before the team entered Fort Detrick on April 6. Photo: VCG

A member of the Frederick Police Department Special Response Team peers out of a minivan before the team entered Fort Detrick on April 6. Photo: VCG

Opaque US biosecurity system

UNC's and Fort Detrick's lab accidents are only a tip of the iceberg when it comes to the US' porous biological labs system. In 2015, a USA Today investigation revealed "hundreds of lab mistakes, safety violations, and near-miss incidents" that have occurred in biological laboratories coast to coast in recent years, which put "scientists, their colleagues, and sometimes even the public at risk."

Several Chinese virologists and biologists who had been in contact with their US peers shared their concerns over the US' opaque biosecurity system, which, as was noted by many, lacked adequate information reporting and supervision mechanisms.

Some US labs preserve samples of the viruses they uncover instead of reporting them, said Yang Zhanqiu, a virologist at Wuhan University. "Some samples are even held for decades," Yang told the Global Times.

The lack of bottom-up messaging is also a big problem, noted Li. Usually front-line labs carrying out confidential or sophisticated biotechnology projects won't be punished if they don't report, or only report part of the whole story with upper-level acquiescence or ignorance, Li said. "That's why the US government or even the president occasionally just say 'I don't know' in responding to the media and the public's enquiries - they indeed don't know what exactly is going on [at front-line labs]," he added.

For the six coronavirus-related incidents at UNC labs, the university declined to answer questions about the incidents or disclose key details to the public, including the names of viruses involved, the nature of the modifications made to them, and what risks were posed to the public, ProPublica said, noting this was "contrary to NIH guidelines."

UNC has seemingly paid no price for its reticence. Numerous similar cases have exposed supervision loopholes in biosecurity system, some insiders have noted, warning that it may lead to a few US individual researchers or labs who "do whatever they want."

At the University of Iowa, scientist Stanley Perlman launched work for the deadly MERS virus without faculty approval, the Des Moines Register reported in December 2014. Worse still, Perlman's team conducted the MERS research in a biosafety level-2 lab, instead of a level-3 facility as is required by federal regulators, it said.

The university was also accused of "improperly withholding forms" that would allow the public to assess "whether any of the deadly agent imported from a collaborator in Spain was stolen, lost, or released," according to Des Moines Register.

Li, who has personally been acquainted with US experts, told the Global Times that although the US government's policies in biosecurity seem cautious and mild, a few individual researchers (often with military connections) at front-line labs without foreign technical verification are "audacious," he said. 

Considering the leading biotechnology posture of US and an intentional ignorance of government departments, Li thinks there is the possibility that individual researchers or teams in the US may have, for example based on its considerable collection of coronavirus strains, secretly modified a virus precursor like COVID-19 without permission. "We can't simply rule it out."

Double standards against China

In the US, there are lots of biobanks covering a number of industries including agriculture and energy, contributing to a huge sample database that China doesn't have, said insiders reached by the Global Times.

No one can guarantee that the US biobanks are 100 percent safe and are subject to effective supervision, they noted.

With a mixed record on safety, the US' ambiguous double-standard attitude toward the COVID-19 lab leak theory has led many in the public to become increasingly suspicious: It keeps smearing Chinese labs for "leaking the virus," while attempting to cover up its domestic situation.

Will Uncle Sam be able to continue deceiving the world in terms of investigation into COVID-19 origins?

Will Uncle Sam be able to continue deceiving the world in terms of investigation into COVID-19 origins?

Anthony Fauci, a top US expert in public health, was previously criticized by people in and out of the US for being inconsistent on the lab leak theory. Fauci said in June he never played down the possibility that the novel coronavirus could have been leaked from a lab in China. But in July, he reversed the claim, saying that the natural virus origins theory is still most likely. 

Coronavirus disease expert Baric, whose team reportedly has refuted the lab leak theory though, told Spanish media that some man-made viruses can be "disguised" as coming from nature through certain techniques, and even implied that files at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) have the answers people want.

Baric was also among the scientists who jointly wrote a letter in May to criticize the WHO's investigation into the virus' origins, which had ruled a lab release in Wuhan "extremely unlikely." "A rigorous investigation would have reviewed the biosafety level under which bat coronavirus research was conducted at WIV," NBC quoted Baric as saying in June.

Ironically, while slandering Chinese labs using the lab leak claim, the US keeps suppressing the voices that are calling for investigations on its own labs. After Peter Daszak, a British zoologist who had been to Wuhan as a WHO expert team member, condemned The New York Times for engaging in selectively misquoting WHO experts to fit its own narrative, he was defamed by Western media and found his funding cut-off. 

Australian virologist Danielle Anderson, the only foreign scientist to have worked in the high-security BSL-4 lab at the WIV, was threatened by a few extreme conspiracy theorists for defending WIV and refuting the lab leak theory. She had to call the police and lock down her running app for safety reasons, Sydney Morning Herald reported in June.

Western social media platforms also helped to shut down those who raise legitimate questions about US labs, the Global Times found. "Greg Rubini" for example, a Twitter account that US government claimed is owned by a right-wing conspiracy theorist, was suspended after posting tweets that accused the US labs including the ones at the UNC of leaking COVID-19.

Driven by the political need to smear and suppress others, the US has been busy muddying the waters, engaged in stigmatization, and turning the COVID-19 origins-tracing study into a political weapon, FM spokesperson Zhao said in July. 

The US "has made lying, vilifying, and coercing its standard operating practice without any respect for facts, science, or justice," Zhao said. "Such despicable behavior will leave a stain in the history of the humanity's fight against diseases."

 Terrible safety record shows possibility of virus escaping from US lab

Terrible safety record shows possibility of virus escaping from US lab