A Chinese researcher was arrested in Boston on suspicion of stealing vials of biological samples, according to court documents unsealed on Dec. 19.
Customs officials stopped Zheng Zaosong for questioning at Boston Logan International Airport on Dec. 9, upon flagging him as “a high risk for possibly exporting undeclared biological material,” a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent said in an affidavit filed with the Massachusetts district court on Dec. 12.
Zheng, a 29-year-old researcher at the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hospital in China’s southern province of Guangdong, came to Harvard University’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center as a visiting graduate student in pathology. He was heading to Beijing at the time of the arrest.
An examination of Zheng’s checked bags found 21 vials of unknown brown liquid wrapped in a plastic bag and hidden in a sock, the document said, adding that both typed and handwritten descriptions and notes accompanied the vials.
“These vials contained what appeared to be biological materials that were not properly declared or packaged for transportation in commercial aircraft,” the agent said.
According to the document, the FBI has seized the unknown samples for further examination.
The Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zheng denied that he was traveling with biological items or research materials despite repeated questioning from Customs and Border Protection officers, the document said.
The agent said Zheng is currently under investigation for “knowingly and willfully mak[ing] a series of false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements” and attempting to steal undeclared biological materials to China.
According to the agent, when asked why he did not declare the vials, Zheng replied that “they were not important and had nothing to do with his research.” He later stated that he obtained the vials through his friend Zhang Tao, another researcher at the hospital, but that he had “no plans to do anything with the vials.”
Zheng failed to offer an explanation for attempting to leave the United States with the items and why he concealed them in a sock, the agent said.
After further questioning, Zheng confessed that he had stolen eight vials from the research lab and personally replicated 11 others based on Zhang’s research, according to the affidavit. He told the investigators that no one else was aware of the stolen data.
Zheng also said that he replicated Zhang’s research over a period of two to three months while working at the lab, without the knowledge of the medical center.
The agent added that Zheng, upon returning to China, had planned to immediately take the vials to his lab at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hospital for analysis and for his own research, which he may publish in his name “if the results of his research were successful in any way.”
The inspection officers also found a laptop in Zheng’s baggage belonging to another Chinese national, whose name was redacted in the document. Zheng said he was helping to carry the laptop for a friend who “could not fit it in his luggage,” a claim that the agent refuted.
“A basic search of the device resulted in the discovery of what appeared to be research material,” the agent said.
Chinese Academic Espionage
The investigation came at a time when Chinese state-sanctioned theft of sensitive technology from American research institutions faces growing government scrutiny.
FBI officials have reached out to universities in a wide-reaching campaign to stem out theft of trade secrets by the regime.
On Oct. 29, lawmakers introduced a bill to both the House and the Senate calling for the State Department to designate a task force to “address this growing threat by increasing counterintelligence vetting for student and academic visas.”
In September, a California-based Chinese couple were charged with stealing trade secrets from Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Research Institute based in Ohio. Both researchers, who had worked at the institute for 10 years, founded a biotech firm in China selling the same technology that they had been researching.
Earlier this year, a renowned cancer research center, MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, ousted three researchers who were suspected of funneling research data to China, after receiving inquiries from the National Institutes of Health.