China Might Be Behind Harvard Student’s Theft of Cancer Research, Feds Claim

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David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty

The Chinese government may be behind the alleged theft of biological material used in cancer research from a Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center lab by a 29-year-old visiting graduate student at Harvard University, prosecutors have said.

Zaosong Zheng was stopped at Boston Logan International Airport on Dec. 9, where federal agents determined him to be a “high risk for possibly exporting undeclared biological material” after finding 21 vials of brown liquid with typed and handwritten notes wrapped in a plastic bag inside a sock in his checked luggage, according to an affidavit written by FBI Special Agent Kara Spice.

When officers began questioning Zaosong, who was scheduled to fly to Beijing, he allegedly first denied that he was traveling with any biological items or research material before later admitting that some of them were stolen from the research lab at Beth Israel Hospital. Zaosong allegedly told authorities that the rest of the vials were replicated from someone else’s research and that he planned to take the materials to his lab in China.

“Zheng explained that if the results of his research were successful in any way that he planned to publish a paper in his name,” wrote Spice.

“I believe, based on my training and experience, that Zheng… was knowingly gathering and collecting intellectual property from BIDMC, possibly on behalf of the Chinese government,” Spice wrote.

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Zaosong is charged with making false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements to Customs and Border Protection officials. The charges were initially filed in federal court on Dec. 10 and unsealed last week.

During a detention hearing at U.S. District Court in Boston on Monday, Magistrate Judge David Hennessy reportedly said that Zaosong’s alleged “conduct represents a serious breach of good faith commitment to Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.”

“It is a disgrace on them and this defendant caused it,” said Hennessy.

Zaosong was in the United States on a Harvard University-sponsored J-1 visa, reported The Boston Herald. University officials told The Boston Globe that Zaosong’s educational exchange visa has been revoked.

“According to the affidavit of (FBI) Special Agent Kara Spice, based on her 15 years of experience as an agent, the Chinese government, and I’m quoting, ‘uses postgraduate students and post-graduate researchers and professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to obtain and often steal intellectual property from the U.S.,” Hennessy is reported to have said. “There is some evidence that that was going on here.”

Hennessy declared Zaosong a flight risk and ordered him held without bail. His case is not isolated.

A congressional report published in November found that the federal government has so far failed to stop China from stealing intellectual property from American universities.

In June, then-Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan issued a warning to China about stealing technology and research from the United States, saying that “competition does not mean conflict” and “is not to be feared.”

“We should welcome it, provided that everyone plays by internationally established rules,” Shanahan said.

A spokeswoman at Beth Israel has said the hospital is cooperating with federal authorities.

“We are deeply proud of the breadth and depth of our research programs,” said Jennifer Kritz. “Any efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care.”

Zaosong’s federal public defender has declined comment to local newspapers and did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.

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