On Tuesday, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting information about two sensitive but unclassified diplomatic cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing back to the State Department in Washington in early 2018. The cables, one of which I obtained, reported that scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology complained about a lack of properly trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate their highest-security lab, which claimed the top level of biological security (Biosafety level 4).. The U.S. diplomats also warned of the risk of a new virus pandemic breaking out at the lab if more wasn’t done to address these concerns.
The cables contain no firm evidence the novel coronavirus outbreak originated in the WIV lab. But their emergence has stirred an intense debate inside the Trump administration — and now on Capitol Hill — over whether this lab or the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab is connected to the origin of the pandemic. The lab and the Chinese government have categorically denied any connection.
“The cables raise really serious red flags and it would stand to reason that anybody that received these cables would take steps to figure out whether there was fire underneath the smoke,” Murphy told me in an interview. “But we still have more questions than we have answers about the origin of this virus.”
These Democrat senators are not endorsing the lab origin theory outright and they definitely don’t agree with Trump on China policy. But they do not dismiss the possibility that the Wuhan labs were connected to the outbreak, and they want the U.S. government to get to the bottom of it.
First of all, they want Pompeo to hand over the cables. The House Foreign Affairs Committee minority side has also put in a formal request for the cables. The State Department denied my request for the cables and declined to comment for this article.
The senators also want to know: What did the State Department do to follow up on the cables? Did the U.S. government investigate its assertions, address its concerns, share the information with other agencies, engage the Chinese government on the matter or offer the WIV lab the help it was clearly asking for to be able to operate safely?
Why did the Trump administration slash the staff of our own CDC inside China in 2018 and 2019? And why did the Trump administration cancel funding for the USAID Predict program, which was trying to prevent the next viral pandemic by working with Chinese researchers, including the WIV lab? Murphy is proposing new funding for international public health infrastructure and restoration of the mechanisms the Trump administration cut.
“If you got this cable and you had an infrastructure inside China that could help you investigate the claims, you would think the response would be to increase that presence,” Murphy said. “It appears that the Trump administration’s response to these cables was to pull out our investigators rather than empower them.”
Since the existence of the cables was revealed, top Trump administration officials have said they’re still trying to understand the virus’s origins but the Chinese government is intentionally thwarting their efforts. The National Institutes of Health has suspended its work with the WIV lab and is conducting its own investigation, but without China’s help.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been looking for evidence about the virus origin for months, but they haven’t found any proof that would either implicate or exonerate the labs. There’s an intelligence gap, several officials told me, which means they don’t know anything either way.
Murphy said China should allow international experts into Wuhan to investigate the lab-related theory as well as a scenario that links the outbreak to a local seafood market. He wants the Trump administration to take a more international approach to bringing pressure to bear on Beijing.
“Everything [Chinese authorities] have done suggests that they have something to hide,” he said. “If this virus did emanate from bats in a wet market as they claim, then why not allow outsiders inside to confirm that claim? You have to view their actions incredibly suspiciously.”
He thinks the Trump administration and its allies are attacking China to deflect from Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and make up for Trump’s early praise of the Chinese government’s response. Whatever one’s view on the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, however, Americans’ public health depends on figuring out the truth about the labs — not just in Wuhan but in all of China.
“If there is an ongoing security crisis in Chinese labs, then we need to resource our overseas public health infrastructure to address that,” Murphy said.
The important question of how the coronavirus pandemic started is caught up in our domestic political fight over how to deal with China. But there’s a bipartisan consensus that we must figure out what happened in Wuhan in order to help mitigate this pandemic and prevent the next one.