The U.S. Department of Education has asked the University of Texas (UT) to supply documentation on its relationship with the China-based infectious-disease lab at the heart of the controversy surrounding the origin of the CCP virus, the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease.
Though scientists suggest the likeliest origin of the pandemic remains natural, investigators are looking into whether there is evidence to support a theory that the virus was the subject of scientific work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and somehow escaped.
President Donald Trump, in remarks on Thursday, claimed to have seen evidence to support the theory that the virus had been in the lab and that the United States now “is finding how it came out.”
“It’s a terrible thing that happened,” the president said. “Whether they made a mistake or whether it started off as a mistake and then they made another one, or did somebody do something on purpose.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the clearinghouse for the web of U.S. spy agencies, said it agrees with the scientific consensus that the virus is not man-made but was still investigating the precise source of the global pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 people worldwide.
The intel statement said the federal agencies concur “with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”
“The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan,” the statement said.
The Education Department’s letter (pdf), dated April 24, 2020, asks UT to share documents related to potential ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), along with dozens of Chinese universities and firms, including ones with links to the regime.
“Between June 6, 2014, and June 3, 2019, UT reported approximately twenty-four contracts with various Chinese state-owned universities and ten contracts with Huawei Technologies, all purportedly worth a reported total of $12,987,896,” the letter reads.
“It is not clear, however, whether UT has in fact reported all gifts from or contracts with or relating to the Wuhan MCL, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and/or all other foreign sources, including agents and instrumentalities of the government of the Peoples’ Republic of China,” it adds.
The Education Department said it is requesting a series of records from UT, including copies of gift or donation agreements and staff contact information, so that the department can assess whether UT is in compliance with federal laws that require higher education institutions to report things like gifts and contracts from foreign sources.
The request for records of gifts or contracts from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and its researcher Shi Zhengli, known for her work on bats, is part of a broader department investigation into possible faulty financial disclosures of foreign money by the Texas group of universities.
A UT official told The Wall Street Journal that the institution plans to respond to the department and declined to provide information about any potential links to the entities identified in the letter.
It follows earlier reports that the Canadian government was funding a COVID-19 research project that involved collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
A University of Alberta professor received a grant worth more than 828,000 Canadian dollars ($590,000) to work with the Wuhan lab to develop COVID-19 tests, according to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a government agency.
The project aims to develop rapid and inexpensive tests for COVID-19.
The recipient of the Canadian government grant is professor Xiaochun Le, an analytical and environmental toxicology researcher at the University of Alberta. His project is one of dozens that Canadian authorities have recently funded that pertain to COVID-19.
Canadian authorities have not said why the Wuhan lab was chosen but a spokesman for federal Health Minister Patty Hadju told the Globe and Mail, a Canadian news outlet, that this and other state-funded research projects undergo “rigorous peer review” by experts independent of the government.
Speaking to the same outlet, a spokeswoman for the University of Alberta said the Wuhan lab was chosen because researchers there have considerable experience with COVID-19 testing.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology surged into the spotlight amid mounting efforts to determine exactly how the outbreak began.
In 2018, American officials visited the Wuhan facility multiple times and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which was researching coronaviruses from bats, according to the Washington Post.
Those cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the lab and proposed more attention and help.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.