Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wuhan lab’s classified work complicates search for pandemic’s origins

An aerial view of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in China’s Hubei province. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

In May 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s staff filed into an old-fashioned lecture hall. A local representative of China’s National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets was at the podium.

The official, Tang Kaihong, discussed the national security risks of the institute’s research and warned of infiltration efforts by foreign spies, according to an account published by the institute’s parent organization, the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The researchers signed pledges to protect confidential information.

The Wuhan lab has drawn global scrutiny because of its research on bat coronaviruses in the city where the pandemic began. The events have shined a light on a research niche that — in China, the United States and elsewhere — operates with heightened secrecy because of the national security risks of handling deadly pathogens.

A review of the lab’s public records and internal guidelines reveals the existence of unspecified classified projects and discussion of the lab’s responsibilities under China’s state secrets law. Some records mention protocols for disclosing information to foreigners and the sealing of some research reports for up to two decades.

In the absence of crucial evidence of how the new coronavirus began comes many theories — one is that the virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. (Video: Sarah Cahlan, Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

A scientist adventurer and China’s ‘Bat Woman’ are under scrutiny as coronavirus lab-leak theory gets another look

The secrecy may help to explain why efforts to confirm or disprove the lab-leak theory of the pandemic’s origins have made little progress. President Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to “redouble their efforts” to determine the source of the virus — exactly the sort of operation the Wuhan lab prepared for more than a decade ago with the setting up of systems to handle confidential information.

The precautions don’t mean the lab has anything to do with the virus’s origin, or that there’s anything nefarious about its classified projects. The United States also conducts classified pathogen research, and requires employees of high-containment labs to pass background checks.

China’s threshold for the classification of secrets is lower than in some countries; under China’s sweeping State Secrets Law, such material encompasses not only military and diplomatic affairs, but also sensitive information about the country’s economic, scientific and social development, with authorities having broad discretion.

Many Western scientists favor the theory that the pandemic began in nature, calling it the simplest explanation. But they acknowledge that lab accidents happen frequently. In 2019 in the United States alone, 219 accidental releases of “select agents” — deadly viruses or toxins — and 13 lost samples were recorded by U.S. regulators in the Federal Select Agent Program’s annual report.

It’s unclear how often such lab accidents occur in China. In 2004, Chinese health authorities acknowledged that a lab accident had caused a localized outbreak of SARS, a year after the epidemic was largely controlled.

So far, no evidence has emerged contradicting statements by the Wuhan researchers that they did not encounter covid-19 before the pandemic and that no accidents occurred at the lab.

Scientists battle over the ultimate origin story: Where did the coronavirus come from?

Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that even with the renewed investigations, it seems unlikely a lab leak could be either proved or ruled out.

“We will never know the answer,” he said. “We either take their word for it, or we send you over with some muscular guys and we draw their blood. Would we tolerate that? No, we would not.”

The Wuhan lab’s guidelines on information disclosure say the institute shares details of its work with the public, with the exception of state secrets, research and work secrets, matters under investigation, and disclosures that would violate the law.

The topics of the lab’s classified projects are unknown. The lab and the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets did not respond to questions on the matter.

The U.S. State Department said in January that the Wuhan lab had worked on classified projects, including animal experiments, with China’s military since at least 2017. The Washington Post was unable to independently confirm that, but found public records of the lab working with Chinese military hospitals on unclassified projects for drug development and AIDS prevention, as well as instances in which lab officials mentioned classified projects at the institute.

Angela Rasmussen, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, said high-containment labs, including in the United States, have confidentiality requirements for a range of reasons, including preventing hostile strangers from accessing deadly pathogens and protecting intellectual property.

“If the pandemic had started in the D.C. area, you can count on the fact that the U.S. government would not allow an unfettered ‘independent’ investigation to occur for the exact same reasons: It is a major longer-term security risk that can’t be fully mitigated,” she said. “It does not indicate the need to cover anything up beyond not letting potential adversarial powers have carte blanche access to secure government facilities.”

Plugging leaks

In March 2014, China updated its State Secrets Law implementation regulations, providing practical guidance for those whose work involves sensitive information. Among the new requirements: that obsolete equipment be disposed of in a way that the information within can never be recovered.

What might have been a low-key bureaucratic exercise turned high-profile when President Xi Jinping declared national security a priority the next month, saying the country faced growing threats. Officials rushed to toe the line, including by publicizing their implementation of the secrecy rules.

In May 2014, the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the lab’s parent organization, held a meeting to discuss the handling of confidential information, according to a post on the CAS website. Chen Pingping, deputy director general of the branch, told participants they needed to follow the new regulations, including those on better control of staff on classified projects and more careful document management.

Trump administration’s hunt for pandemic ‘lab leak’ went down many paths and came up with no smoking gun

We must “standardize treatment of old documents, to resolutely prevent materials with confidential information from reaching the public,” she said.

This was followed in October 2014 by a training session for more than 60 staff members at the Wuhan lab who were Communist Party members. Xiao Gengfu, head of the lab’s confidentiality committee, discussed the meaning of state secrets and the institute’s protocols.

“He pointed out that confidentiality work is related to the security of the party and the nation,” according to a summary published by the CAS.

In 2018, Xiao was promoted to become the lab’s party secretary, often the most powerful position in a Chinese organization, even when someone else is the titular boss, according to Jude Blanchette, a Chinese politics expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

On the lab’s online leadership list, Xiao appears second after Director General Wang Yanyi. Xiao’s party secretary title appears only on the lab’s Chinese website, with the English version identifying him as deputy director general.

Timeline: How the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible

Xiao appears to have kept a close eye on the lab’s coronavirus research since the pandemic began: He was a co-author on at least 15 peer-reviewed papers related to the novel coronavirus, more than Wang and other institute leaders, according to ResearchGate.

In recent years, the lab has held regular confidentiality training sessions for staff, including one in 2018 where speakers discussed best practices for moving researchers on and off classified projects, overseas travel guidelines for those on sensitive projects, and “confidentiality management when hosting foreigners.” That session was held several months after a visit from U.S. diplomats, who sent a cable to Washington about safety concerns at the institute.

Confidentiality work has continued at the lab since the pandemic placed it in the global spotlight — underscoring the challenges in assessing the lab-leak theory.

In August 2020, the lab advertised for an IT specialist for its confidentiality office, specifying that the successful candidate should be a party member.

This spring, the lab distributed forms to students for sealing dissertations on confidential topics. One of the forms said “confidential” dissertations would be sealed for up to 10 years and “classified” ones for up to 20 years.

Pei Lin Wu contributed to this report.

A scientist adventurer and China’s ‘Bat Woman’ are under scrutiny as coronavirus lab-leak theory gets another look

Trump administration’s hunt for pandemic ‘lab leak’ went down many paths and came up with no smoking gun

WHO Wuhan report leaves question of coronavirus origins unresolved