State Dept. emails show interagency infighting over probe into COVID-19 lab leak theory

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EXCLUSIVE: Emails between two top State Department officials show the intense mistrust and interagency infighting between the department’s COVID-19 investigative team and the arms control bureaucracy over the claim the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China.

Fox News obtained emails sent in early January between Chris Ford, the former acting undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, and Thomas DiNanno, the former acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification.

Ford was pushing back against a panel of experts’ investigation launched by the department into the origins of COVID-19, and wrote that he wanted to subject the investigative team to a higher level scrutiny. In the emails, Ford claims the investigative team kept him out of the loop, made “not-exactly-confidence-inspiring arguments” about the lab-leak theory and delayed any substantive review from scientific experts.  

DiNanno responds that his team briefed Ford and experts several weeks prior with slides from Asher’s findings and that “I’d like to know what in those slides they find objectionable or where clarification is required and we’ll happily clarify, source and amend as necessary.”

In an interview with Fox News last week, Asher said of Ford: “He seemed disinterested.” 

“He said even if we came to it, how do we know where it came out of, what lab? I very rarely in my life in government have ever encountered someone who is more of a neg-acrat, less a bureaucrat than that individual is,” he said. “I rarely say that I encountered disgraceful behavior in government, but I did actually on this occasion.”

The claim that the virus may have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, rather than a natural transmission from animals to humans, was promoted by a number of officials during the Trump administration, but dismissed at the time by a number of experts and many in the media.

But the theory has been gaining steam again in recent weeks, in part due to reports that a number of researchers at the laboratory were hospitalized with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019. The intelligence community has been ordered to “redouble” its efforts by President Biden to discover what caused the pandemic that wreaked havoc across the globe.

“No effort was made at any time to suppress or withhold information from senior policymakers or the public,” a spokesperson told Fox News on Thursday. “Internal disagreements were about the quality of analysis and the importance of not overstating, or bending, evidence to fit preconceived narratives.”

Fox can confirm that there was a meeting on Jan. 7 to examine the lab-leak hypothesis, in which scientific experts questioned the findings, but saw other reasons to suspect a lab origin for the virus — including that the Wuhan Institute of Virology [WIV] never reported the infection of six miners in 2012 with a SARS virus to the World Health Organization.

According to the meeting notes, one expert — Ralph Baric — said that if SARS-CoV-2 had come from a “strong animal reservoir,” one might have expected to see “multiple introduction events,” rather than a single outbreak, though he cautioned that it didn’t prove “[this] was an escape from a laboratory.” 

Baric later said the WIV will never be able to escape the idea that virus originated from the lab and added that there is a strong probability it comes from a natural source. Asher, meanwhile, mentioned the use of gain-of-function research to increase lethality of viruses and that he was shocked that someone had not raised this.

The intelligence community recently said that it does not know where COVID-19 was transmitted initially, “but has coalesced around two likely scenarios: either it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident.”

The State Department spokesperson on Thursday told Fox that it will “continue pushing for a stronger, multilateral evaluation of the origins of the virus in China.” 

“We need the PRC to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international study with the needed access to get to the bottom of a virus that’s taken more than 3 million lives across the globe — and, critically, to share information and lessons that will help us all prevent future catastrophic biological threats,” the spokesperson said.

Fox News’ John Roberts contributed to this report.

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