A U.S. government official reportedly ordered his employees not to publicly acknowledge American connections to and funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the site implicated in a potential lab-leak coronavirus origin theory.
Christopher Park did not want to open the “Pandora’s Box” of U.S. funding for gain-of-function research, according to a Thursday Vanity Fair report. The U.S. government indirectly funded gain-of-function at WIV through grants to the nonprofit group EcoHealth Alliance. That funding was not subject to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) review board that could have rejected the grant, because the sub-agency that awarded grants did not alert the review board.
Park, the director of the State Department’s Biological Policy Staff in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, reportedly told his employees not to say anything publicly in reference to that funding, an individual who attended the meeting where he gave his order reportedly told Vanity Fair. The individual reportedly described his comments as “so nakedly against transparency” as to be “shocking and disturbing.”
Park’s comments “smelled like a cover-up,” according to Thomas DiNanno, former acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Park had pushed for the U.S. to resume funding gain-of-function research in 2017, according to Vanity Fair.
“I am skeptical that people genuinely felt they were being discouraged from presenting facts,” Park told Vanity Fair. It “is making an enormous and unjustifiable leap … to suggest that research of that kind [meant] that something untoward is going on,” he continued.
EcoHealth Alliance distributed $600,000 in U.S. taxpayer dollars to WIV between 2014 and 2019 for the purpose of studying bat-based coronaviruses. The money was granted to EcoHealth by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the National Institutes of Health sub-agency led by White House senior medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The money was distributed during a government moratorium on gain-of-function research.
“If you ban gain-of-function research, you ban all of virology,” an NIH official reportedly said. “Ever since the moratorium, everyone’s gone wink-wink and just done gain-of-function research anyway.”
The WIV also received $559,000 from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), according to the report.
Park was not the only government official to oppose pursuing the lab-leak hypothesis, however. DiNanno told Vanity Fair that an intelligence analyst struggled to find a report written by officials working at a Department of Energy lab. DiNanno told the outlet he viewed the report as being intentionally buried within the classified collections system. Department of Energy officials then attempted to block State Department officials from meeting with the report’s authors, DiNanno alleged.
Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Chris Ford repeatedly downplayed the lab-leak hypothesis to DiNanno and other researchers. He also wrote a memo arguing that officials should not view the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s “involvement in classified virus research [a]s intrinsically problematic since the U.S. Army has been deeply involved in virus research in the United States for many years.”
Ford told Vanity Fair that he was trying to avoid “stuff that makes us look like the crackpot brigade.”