Suspected SARS virus and flu samples found in luggage: FBI report describes China's 'biosecurity risk'

WASHINGTON — In late November 2018, just over a year before the first coronavirus case was identified in Wuhan, China, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Detroit Metro Airport stopped a Chinese biologist with three vials labeled “Antibodies” in his luggage. 

The biologist told the agents that a colleague in China had asked him to deliver the vials to a researcher at a U.S. institute. After examining the vials, however, customs agents came to an alarming conclusion.

“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 Yahoo News.

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.

“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,” reads the report. “The WMDD makes this assessment with high confidence based on liaison reporting with direct access.”

The report, which came out more than two months before the World Health Organization learned of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan that turned out to be COVID-19, appears to be part of a larger FBI concern about China’s involvement with scientific research in the U.S. While the report refers broadly to foreign researchers, all three cases cited involve Chinese nationals.

In the case of the suspected SARS and MERS vials, the intelligence report cites another classified document that is marked “FISA,” meaning it contains information collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Another case cited in the report appeared to involve flu strains, and a third was suspected E. coli. 

The FBI does not state precisely what sort of biosecurity risk these cases could present, but Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said the FBI appears to be concerned with dual-use research that would be used for bioterrorism. And if the illicit samples cited in the report were being brought into the U.S., she says, the traffic is likely to be both ways.

“How do you know what they’re bringing in and out unless you have a comprehensive surveillance point?” she asked. “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 “there is a threat” posed by Chinese nationals carrying biological samples but believes it’s “likely the carrier ... would be someone who is unwitting,” making it hard to determine the intent. “Some likely could be deliberate, to test our ability to identify and intercept. Others could be opportunistic,” he said.

The FBI report refers to both biosecurity, which typically refers to the intentional misuse of pathogens, such as for bioterrorism, and biosafety, which covers accidental release. The FBI declined to comment on the report. 

Concerns about Chinese biosafety are not new. For example, the SARS outbreak in 2003 was followed by several incidents of infections caused by laboratory accidents, including eight cases that resulted from mishandling at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing.

“There have been cases in the past where a variant of some kind of flu pandemic had escaped from a laboratory because of mismanagement,” said Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. 

But the problem is not limited to Chinese researchers, even if those cases have been prominent, she continued. “Certainly it is a biosecurity risk when anyone is transporting materials in a manner that is clandestine because … there have been several incidents when this has occurred with researchers of a variety of nationalities.”

University researchers conducting Lab test in finding the genomic sequence of the Sars associated coronavirus in April 2003. (Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Concerns about China’s flouting of biosafety precautions may be long-standing, but the coronavirus pandemic is likely to exacerbate tensions between Beijing and Washington. The outbreak comes amid already rising tensions in U.S.-China relations over issues that range from trade to espionage. 

Andrew Weber, who worked during the Obama administration as the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, said the relationship with China in the biological sciences has gotten worse in recent years. 

“After SARS, when China needed technical help, it had a strong relationship with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. They were transparent, because they realized covering up an outbreak cost them dearly,” said Weber, now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. “In recent years they’ve tightened up, making international cooperation more difficult.”

In recent weeks, however, these tensions have rapidly boiled over, with President Trump calling COVID-19 “the Chinese Virus,” while Beijing in turn has promoted conspiracy theories claiming the virus originated in a U.S. weapons lab.

Scientists have been adamant that the virus is not a weapon, either from the United States or China.  “There’s no basis to suspect it’s a laboratory construct,” says Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. “It has none of the expected signatures that would be present for deliberate construction.”

However, Ebright doesn’t exclude the possibility that the virus’s spread started from poor biosecurity in China. A leading theory is that the virus jumped from wildlife to humans. Some researchers speculate this happened at a live-animal market where exotic species are sold for food. But Ebright also notes that such wildlife viruses are collected in laboratories, including in Wuhan. “Therefore, it’s also a possibility that this virus entered the human population through accidental infection of a lab worker carrying out field collection, or an accident by a lab worker characterizing the sample in a laboratory,” he said.

Independent of the coronavirus, the FBI’s focus on China’s biosecurity appears to be part of long-standing suspicion in the U.S. government about China’s involvement in the biological sciences. Several recent high-profile Justice Department cases involving the export of sensitive technology have involved Chinese scientists, or persons with alleged ties to the Chinese government. 

Most prominently, the Justice Department in January announced charges against Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, for concealing ties to the Chinese government. “It’s a clear-cut case of a conflict of interest, and unfortunately, it’s not an isolated incident,” said FBI special agent Joseph R. Bonavolonta, head of the Boston field office, in announcing the charges. 

Lieber, who is free on a $1 million bond, has not yet entered a plea on the charges.

Charles Lieber leaves federal court in Boston on Jan. 30, after he was charged with lying to federal authorities in connection with aiding China. (Reuters/Katherine Taylor)

But the FBI’s focus on China and Chinese scientists is also raising concerns among some academics, who fear it smacks of profiling. “I am concerned that the current trend in national security is toward profiling against people of Chinese descent,” said Nicholas Evans, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who specializes in medical ethics. “That’s not only racist, it’s bad practice. FBI and other intelligence and law enforcement attempts at profiling have very often been harmful without making us any safer.”

Evans also questioned the FBI’s focus on scientists hand-carrying biological samples as a unique threat. He pointed to previous examples, like a U.S. lab in Maine that was fined more than a decade ago for importing highly pathogenic avian flu viruses from Saudi Arabia.

“The FBI claims that it is impossible to determine the contents of samples accurately, even if declared under current import laws,” he wrote in an email. “That’s true. But I am skeptical about the degree to which this particular behavior adds significant risks to security given that there are many other ways to get biological organisms into the country.”

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it’s true that China has long had loopholes in its biosafety regulations. “That’s why [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] in February talked about beefing up the legislation for biosafety and biosecurity,” he said. 

That history has already encouraged rumors like the idea that the coronavirus originated as a bioweapon. 

Now, with relations between China and the U.S. deteriorating, Huang expects collaboration on biological research to grow even more difficult, reversing decades of cooperation. “I often argue that U.S. engagement with China is the most successful in the area of public health,” he said. Such cooperation even survived the difficult period after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Now, however, those relations are being set back as hostilities between the two countries grow.

“You could argue, health is borderless, especially when two countries face these common challenges. This would be a time for them to collaborate mostly closely,” he said. “That turned out to not be the case.”

  • Jenna McLaughlin contributed reporting to this story 

_____

Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more:


  • A 'new Cold War?' China blames U.S. for growing tensions
    NBC News

    A 'new Cold War?' China blames U.S. for growing tensions

    The United States is pushing China to the brink of a "new Cold War," China's foreign minister said as officials in the world's two largest economies continue trading barbs over each other's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. "This dangerous attempt to turn back the wheel of history will undo the fruits of decadeslong China-U.S. cooperation, dampen American's own development prospects, and put world stability and prosperity in jeopardy,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday in a video news conference on the sidelines of the annual session of China's National People's Congress. Wang blamed the worsening tensions on "some political forces in the U.S." that were "taking China-U.S. relations hostage."

  • FBI investigating Ahmaud Arbery shooting as possible hate crime, lawyer says
    The Guardian

    FBI investigating Ahmaud Arbery shooting as possible hate crime, lawyer says

    The FBI is investigating the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger, by two white men as a possible hate crime, the Arbery family's attorney said Monday, claiming that federal authorities had launched a criminal inquiry into two district attorneys and the police department involved in the case. Lee Martin, who represents the family of Arbery, 25, whose 23 February killing in Brunswick, Georgia, was captured on a graphic video recording that sparked national outrage, said he met with officials from the Department of Justice last Thursday. Martin said they told him federal investigators were looking into potential “criminal and civil” violations by two officials who later recused themselves from the case.

  • Warren reportedly turning back to wealthy donors in effort to boost Biden
    The Week

    Warren reportedly turning back to wealthy donors in effort to boost Biden

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is reportedly reaching back into her old toolbox in an attempt to help former Vice President Joe Biden. Warren has agreed to host a gathering of big money donors for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, The New York Times reports. During Warren's own presidential campaign, which ended shortly after Super Tuesday in March, the progressive Democratic senator vowed not to attend private events or call wealthy potential donors for contributions.

  • First Iranian oil tanker docks in Venezuela
    AFP

    First Iranian oil tanker docks in Venezuela

    The first of five Iranian tankers carrying much-needed gasoline and oil derivatives has docked in Venezuela and a second one entered its waters, the government said on Monday amid concern in Washington over the burgeoning relationship. The United States has closely monitored the shipments, concerned that Iran and Venezuela -- both under US sanctions -- were taking their longstanding ties to another strategic level. Venezuela boasts the largest proven oil reserves in the world, but production has plummeted under the current regime and its oil exports have been hampered by US sanctions.

  • Americans spend holiday at beaches and parks as virus death toll nears 100,000
    Reuters

    Americans spend holiday at beaches and parks as virus death toll nears 100,000

    This year it has also become a time to mourn the loss of more than 97,000 people due to the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. The New York Times filled its entire front page with the names and selected details of 1,000 victims on Sunday seeking to illustrate the humanity of the lives lost. Among the victims, drawn from obituaries and death notices in hundreds of U.S. newspapers: Lila Fenwick, 87, the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Law; Romi Cohn, 91, saved 56 Jewish families from the Gestapo; Hailey Herrera, 25, budding therapist with a gift for empathy.

  • SpaceX and NASA Are Set for a Historic Crewed Launch This Week. Here's How to Watch
    Time

    SpaceX and NASA Are Set for a Historic Crewed Launch This Week. Here's How to Watch

    It's been a long time since the country that once flew nine crewed missions to the moon has been able to launch even a single human being to space aboard its own rockets from its own soil. Ever since the final flight of the space shuttle in July 2011, the U.S. has been dependent on buying rides aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft—at a current $80 million a seat—if it wants to get as far as low-Earth orbit. All of that is set to change at 4:33 PM EDT on Wednesday May 27, when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are scheduled to take off aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket, bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

  • Coronavirus outbreak: Caribbean tourism struggles as visitors stay home
    BBC

    Coronavirus outbreak: Caribbean tourism struggles as visitors stay home

    Seagulls are the only ones using the pool at a resort fringing one of Antigua's most popular beaches. The absence of holidaymakers due to the Covid-19 pandemic is keenly felt on this Caribbean island for which, like many of its counterparts, tourism has long been its breadbasket. Often dubbed the "most tourism-dependent region in the world", the Caribbean attracted more than 31 million visitors last year.

  • A second immigrant has died from COVID-19 while in ICE custody
    Business Insider

    A second immigrant has died from COVID-19 while in ICE custody

    Santiago Baten-Oxlag, an immigrant in custody of the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency, died of complications from COVID-19 on Sunday. The 34-year-old from Guatemala died in a hospital in Columbus, Georgia, that he had been transferred to from ICE's Stewart Detention Center, in Lumpkin, Georgia. An immigrant in custody of the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency died of COVID-19 complications on Sunday, marking the second death related to the novel coronavirus among people in ICE detainment.

  • Baby gorilla injured at Seattle Zoo
    Yahoo News Video

    Baby gorilla injured at Seattle Zoo

    A baby gorilla was badly injured at a Seattle zoo on Saturday when he was caught in a skirmish between his family group members, zookeepers said.

  • 2020 election: Trump falsely claims 'thousands' of forgeries on mail-in ballots, despite his own commission not finding a single case of fraud
    The Independent

    2020 election: Trump falsely claims 'thousands' of forgeries on mail-in ballots, despite his own commission not finding a single case of fraud

    Donald Trump continued to voice his opposition to expanded mail-in voting with a tweet on Sunday spreading falsehoods about the prevalence of fraud in the process, even though confirmed cases of voter fraud have been in the single digits in past presidential elections. Mr Trump, who spent his succssion day in succession at a golf course over the holiday weekend as the death toll from the pandemic neared 100,000 has spent countless hours on Twitter and before reporters during his political career promoting unsubstantiated theories about rampant voter fraud in the US, which study after study has shown is extremely rare. The president has repeatedly claimed, falsely, that he would have beaten Hillary Clinton in the 2016 popular vote were it not for the “millions of people who voted illegally.”

  • Oklahoma woman missing since April following Facebook post that indicated she believed she had coronavirus
    NBC News

    Oklahoma woman missing since April following Facebook post that indicated she believed she had coronavirus

    Nearly two months have passed since 53-year-old Talina Galloway vanished from her home in Wagoner, Oklahoma, leaving behind her purse and vehicle. “We're really worried about her,” Talina's niece, Chantel Jones, told Dateline. Chantel told Dateline she spent most of her summers living with her Aunt Talina in Indiana.

  • Joe Biden forced to make his fundraisers fully virtual – bar the price tag
    The Guardian

    Joe Biden forced to make his fundraisers fully virtual – bar the price tag

    The coronavirus pandemic may have driven Joe Biden into his basement and forced his campaign online, but one crucial factor is still the same: his run for the White House still needs to raise giant amounts of money. A fundraising invite for a 14 May event for the New Hampshire Republican congressional candidate Matt Mowers featuring the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie starts at $250 for the “individual” level and goes all the way to $1,000 for the chair level.

  • Saudi Arabia to end virus curfew next month
    AFP

    Saudi Arabia to end virus curfew next month

    Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it will end its nationwide coronavirus curfew from June 21, except in the holy city of Mecca, after more than two months of stringent curbs. Prayers will also be allowed to resume in all mosques outside Mecca from May 31, the interior ministry said in a series of measures announced on state media. Elsewhere in the Gulf, Kuwait and the emirate of Dubai also moved to ease their lockdown measures, which together with a collapse in oil prices have pushed the region into its worst economic crisis in decades.

  • China says opposes all U.S. restrictions on Chinese airlines
    Reuters

    China says opposes all U.S. restrictions on Chinese airlines

    China said on Monday it opposes all U.S. restrictions imposed against Chinese airlines, responding to a report that the U.S. Transportation Department has demanded Chinese carriers file their schedules and other flight details by May 27. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said flight restrictions imposed by Beijing treated all airlines equally and were due to efforts to curb COVID-19 related risks. The U.S. government late on Friday accused the Chinese government of making it impossible for U.S. airlines to resume service to China.

  • Serial Rapist Who Was Released Early Arrested on New Rape Charge on Resort Island in Greece
    Time

    Serial Rapist Who Was Released Early Arrested on New Rape Charge on Resort Island in Greece

    A convicted serial rapist released early from a half-century prison term was under police guard in hospital on the Greek resort island of Corfu Monday after suffering severe injuries trying to evade arrest on new rape charges. Police said Dimitris Aspiotis, 47, would undergo surgery for severe back and leg injuries he suffered after falling off a seaside cliff Saturday in the island's southern Lefkimmi area, close to the popular Kavos tourist resort. The suspect had to be extracted by the fire service and rescue teams brought in by sea.

  • The Statue of Liberty as you've never seen her before
    CBS News

    The Statue of Liberty as you've never seen her before

    Last summer, architect Paul Davidson spent ten nights inside of the Statue of Liberty. From 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., he and his team carried out a first-of-its-kind laser scan of Lady Liberty, capturing the statue's interior during the hours when it wasn't packed full of tourists. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are currently closed to all visitors, shut down due to COVID-19.

  • Russia records its highest daily death toll from the coronavirus as its number of new cases appears to decline
    Business Insider

    Russia records its highest daily death toll from the coronavirus as its number of new cases appears to decline

    Lev Fedoseyev\TASS via Getty Images Russia recorded 8,599 new cases 153 new deaths on Sunday linked to the coronavirus, raising its overall death toll to 3,541. The country has recorded 344,481 coronavirus cases and is the third-worst hit country in its total number of coronavirus cases behind Brazil and the US, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. While its daily death toll continues to increase, its number of new daily cases appears to be on the decline.

  • Asia Today: Philippines trying to ease quarantine congestion
    Associated Press

    Asia Today: Philippines trying to ease quarantine congestion

    As about 24,000 Filipinos who lost their jobs abroad are being transported by land, sea or air to their provincial homes, the president warned local officials not to refuse them entry out of coronavirus fears. President Rodrigo Duterte said in televised remarks Monday night that some provincial officials have refused entry to returning workers from abroad and warned them of possible lawsuits. Authorities have been scrambling to decongest the quarantine facilities in the capital since about 300,000 more displaced Filipino workers are slated to come home soon.

  • 'Talk with your lawyer, Bill Barr:' Kamala Harris warns Trump against attempt to 'suppress the vote'
    USA TODAY

    'Talk with your lawyer, Bill Barr:' Kamala Harris warns Trump against attempt to 'suppress the vote'

    Sen. Kamala Harris tore into President Donald Trump Wednesday night for his threat to withhold federal funds from states over absentee ballots, warning such an act would be illegal. "So, you may want to talk to your lawyer, Bill Barr, about that," Harris added, in an apparent swipe at the independence of Attorney General William Barr, whom critics have accused of acting more like the president's personal attorney than the nation's top law enforcement official. On Wednesday morning, Trump said in a tweet that Michigan had sent millions of voters absentee ballots "illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State."

  • Several high school students in Georgia tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a drive-through graduation parade
    INSIDER

    Several high school students in Georgia tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a drive-through graduation parade

    The Lovett School in Atlanta, Georgia, told parents that "several" graduating seniors tested positive for COVID-19 after a May 17 drive-through graduation. The school did not disclose exactly how many students had tested positive for COVID-19. Several high school students in Georgia tested positive for COVID-19 after participating in a drive-through graduation ceremony, school officials said in a letter to students' families that was first reported by CNN.

  • Charlamagne Tha God Reacts to Joe Biden’s ‘You Ain’t Black’ Apology
    The Daily Beast

    Charlamagne Tha God Reacts to Joe Biden’s ‘You Ain’t Black’ Apology

    MSNBC's Joy Reid opened her interview with Charlamagne Tha God on Sunday morning by congratulating him on his interview this past week with former Vice President Joe Biden—even if all anyone wants to talk about are the final few seconds. “You've got more questions?” Biden asked. Shortly after that interview, Biden apologized for his remarks on a conference call with the Black Chamber of Commerce.

  • Palestinian government ends coronavirus lockdown
    AFP

    Palestinian government ends coronavirus lockdown

    The Palestinian government is ending its two-month coronavirus lockdown in the occupied West Bank, prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced Monday after a steady decline in new cases. Shops and businesses will operate as normal from Tuesday, while government employees will return to work after the Eid holiday on Wednesday, Shtayyeh told a press conference. Mosques, churches and public parks will also reopen, though with social distancing measures.

  • Chinese media says Wuhan had live virus
    Yahoo News Video

    Chinese media says Wuhan had live virus

    The Chinese virology institute at the centre of US allegations it may have been the source of the COVID-19 pandemic has three live strains of bat coronavirus on-site, but none match the new global contagion, its director has said.

  • Ahmaud Arbery shooting being investigated as federal hate crime, family’s lawyer says
    The Independent

    Ahmaud Arbery shooting being investigated as federal hate crime, family’s lawyer says

    A lawyer representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery has said that the US Department of Justice is investigating his killing as a possible hate crime. Lee Merritt said federal authorities are not only pursuing the hate crime line, but are also investigating two local county officials, George Barnhill and Jackie Johnson, who recused themselves from the case shortly after the killing in February, according to several news reports quoting him. Mr Barnhill and Ms Johnson both resigned under pressure over conflicts of interests, as they had professional connections with the killers, Gregory and Travis McMichael – and in his letter of recusal, Mr Barnhill recommended that no arrest be made in the case.

  • ‘Turn back this wave of hate’: 100 writers call for an end to anti-Asian hostility
    The Guardian

    ‘Turn back this wave of hate’: 100 writers call for an end to anti-Asian hostility

    More than 100 prominent writers, including several top Asian American authors, have called for an end to a surge in anti-Asian hostility in the US which they say has been “egged on” during the pandemic by the Trump administration's pandering to racist tropes. The joint statement, co-ordinated by Pen America and the Asian American Writers' Workshop (AAWW), comes at a time when hate crimes, violence and other attacks against Asians and Asian Americans are on the rise in the US. There have been numerous reports since early in the pandemic of Asian Americans being blamed for “bringing the virus” into the country and being told “go back to China”.