The BSL-4 Lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was constructed as a result of an agreement between the government of China and France that was signed after the 2003 SARS pandemic.
At the time, all BSL-3 labs in China were controlled by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Former President of France, Jacques Chirac, and his Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, approved the project despite concerns from both the French Ministry of Defense and French intelligence services.
Both the French Ministry of Defence and French Intelligence suspected China of having a biological warfare program, and the military and intelligence services were worried that the dual-use technology required to build a BSL-4 lab could be used misused by the Chinese government.
The uneasy compromise reached within the French government was that the agreement would require joint China-France research to be conducted in the lab, with French researchers present.
Reportedly in mid-June 2004, four months before the deal was finalized, the French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) warned the French government that China was planning to develop a total of five BSL-4 labs, including two managed by the military. This ran counter to China’s public claims that it was only seeking to build one such lab. Despite repeated concerns from the French Ministry of Defense and intelligence services, French leadership continued to move forward with the deal.
Questions of safety at the WIV have persisted for some time and come in the broader context of a history of lab accidents in China. Between April 22nd and April 29th, 2004, China reported nine new cases of SARS linked to an accident at a government lab in Beijing. Two of those cases were graduate students conducting research at China’s National Institute of Virology Laboratory (NIVL).
According to the WHO, the NIVL was conducting research using both live and inactivated samples of SARS-CoV, the virus that causes SARS in humans.221 The graduate students, a 26-year-old postgraduate student, and a 31-year-old post-doctoral student, were infected in two separate incidents, two weeks apart. As a result of the graduate students becoming infected, seven other additional cases of SARS in China and one fatality were confirmed.
In addition, two State Department cables from early 2018 reportedly raised the issue of safety concerns at the WIV. The cables came from State Department personnel at Embassy Beijing and Consulate General Wuhan and focused on issues related to safety and management weaknesses at the WIV. Scientists at the WIV themselves noted “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”WHO 2
The cables also questioned China’s commitment to prioritizing the important research for which the lab was designed
The US Embassy Georgia Fact Sheet of Wuhan Institute of Virology highlights the concern of US government on China and Wuhan Institute of Virology:
Illnesses inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV):
- The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses. 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.
- Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one.
- The CCP has prevented independent journalists, investigators, and global health authorities from interviewing researchers at the WIV, including those who were ill in the fall of 2019. Any credible inquiry into the origin of the virus must include interviews with these researchers and a full accounting of their previously unreported illness.
2. Research at the WIV:
- Starting in at least 2016 – and with no indication of a stop prior to the COVID-19 outbreak – WIV researchers conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar). The WIV became a focal point for international coronavirus research after the 2003 SARS outbreak and has since studied animals including mice, bats, and pangolins.
- The WIV has a published record of conducting “gain-of-function” research to engineer chimeric viruses. But the WIV has not been transparent or consistent about its record of studying viruses most similar to the COVID-19 virus, including “RaTG13,” which it sampled from a cave in Yunnan Province in 2013 after several miners died of SARS-like illness.
- WHO investigators must have access to the records of the WIV’s work on bat and other coronaviruses before the COVID-19 outbreak. As part of a thorough inquiry, they must have a full accounting of why the WIV altered and then removed online records of its work with RaTG13 and other viruses.
3. Secret military activity at the WIV:
- Secrecy and non-disclosure are standard practice for Beijing. For many years the United States has publicly raised concerns about China’s past biological weapons work, which Beijing has neither documented nor demonstrably eliminated, despite its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.
- Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.
- The United States and other donors who funded or collaborated on civilian research at the WIV have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.
Interestingly, here is one scientist on the WHO Investigation team view on WIV in a media interview: “The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely. We visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is an impressive research facility and looks to be run well, with due regard to staff health.
We spoke to the scientists there. We heard that scientists’ blood samples, which are routinely taken and stored, were tested for signs they had been infected. No evidence of antibodies to the coronavirus was found. We looked at their biosecurity audits. No evidence.
We looked at the closest virus to SARS-CoV-2 they were working on – the virus RaTG13 – which had been detected in caves in southern China where some miners had died seven years previously.
But all the scientists had was a genetic sequence for this virus. They had not managed to grow it in culture. While viruses certainly do escape from laboratories, this is rare. So, we concluded it was extremely unlikely this had happened in Wuhan.”