About a year before the first case of Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) was discovered and identified, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents stopped a Chinese biologist at the Detroit Metro Airport with a trio of vials labeled “Antibodies” stuffed into his luggage.
At the time, according to Yahoo News, the biologist told federal agencies that he had a colleague in China who asked him to deliver the vials to a scientist at a U.S. institution. But after an examination of the vials, CPB agents were quite alarmed.
“Inspection of the writing on the vials and the stated recipient led inspection personnel to believe the materials contained within the vials may be viable Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) materials,” says an unclassified FBI tactical intelligence report obtained by the news organization.
Yahoo News added:
The report, written by the Chemical and Biological Intelligence Unit of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD), does not give the name of the Chinese scientist carrying the suspected SARS and MERS samples, or the intended recipient in the U.S. But the FBI concluded that the incident, and two other cases cited in the report, were part of an alarming pattern.
For review, like COVID-19, the SARS virus originated in China as well, nearly two decades ago, while MERS is a similar coronavirus that originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012. All three attack the respiratory system, though COVID-19 appears to be much more virulent than the earlier viruses.
“The Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assesses foreign scientific researchers who transport undeclared and undocumented biological materials into the United States in their personal carry-on and/or checked luggage almost certainly present a US biosecurity risk,” the FBI’s report says. “The WMDD makes this assessment with high confidence based on liaison reporting with direct access.”
The report was completed nearly two months before the World Health Organization identified a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan that turned out to be the current coronavirus. But it also indicates that the FBI has been increasingly concerned about China’s interest in U.S.-based scientific research. And though the report broadly refers to foreign researchers, Yahoo News noted that it’s clear all three cited cases involve Chinese nationals.
In the case of the SARS and MERS vials, the FBI report referenced a separate classified document marked “FISA,” which indicates that it contains information collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (which authorizes the U.S. intelligence community and the FBI to spy on foreign nationals inside the country).
Another case that is referenced in the FBI report implicates flu strains, while a third was suspected to be E. coli.
The bureau’s report doesn’t specifically describe the biosecurity risk the cases may present. However Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of South Wales in Sydney, Australia, said she believes the FBI is concerned that the Chinese are pursuing dual-use research that could be employed as a bioweapon. (Related: The U.S. government doesn’t plan on saving you from coronavirus, but officials have been stockpiling pandemic supplies to save themselves.)
In addition, she told Yahoo News that if the illicit samples were being brought into the U.S., it’s likely that some are going out as well.
“How do you know what they’re bringing in and out unless you have a comprehensive surveillance point?” she said. “If it’s going one way, it’s going the other way. You’d be very naive to assume otherwise.”
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding, who worked on China issues on the National Security Council under the Trump administration, said it’s more likely that the Chinese nationals carrying the samples are doing so without their knowledge, which would give them plausible deniability.
“Some likely could be deliberate, to test our ability to identify and intercept. Others could be opportunistic,” he said.
Either way, at a time when our country is battling yet another pandemic originating in China, it’s obvious Beijing presents more of a threat to life on earth than many understand.