The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China has the right to make a partnering U.S. lab wipe all data arising from their collaborative work, a legal document reveals.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the Wuhan lab and the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch makes it obligatory for each of the two labs to delete “secret files” or materials upon the request of the other party.
“The party is entitled to ask the other to destroy and/or return the secret files, materials, and equipment without any backups,” states the MOU obtained by U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on public health, through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The MOU focuses on promoting research and training cooperation between the two labs. It was signed in 2017 and stays in effect through this October. But the confidentiality terms would remain binding even after the agreement’s five-year duration expires, the agreement states.
The document broadly defines what materials are to be treated as “confidential,” opening the door to potentially all documents and data from any collaboration being subject to a deletion request.
“All cooperation and exchange documents, details and materials shall be treated as confidential info by the parties,” the MOU states.
The WIV has been at the center of growing speculation that the virus that causes COVID-19, which has now killed millions worldwide, may have leaked from the facility. The lab has denied the assertions, but Beijing has blocked international investigators’ access to data and records from the facility, thus preventing any meaningful review of the theory.
WIV and the Galveston National Laboratory formally declared their partnership the following year to “streamline future scientific and operational collaborations on dangerous pathogens,” according to a joint announcement in the journal Science.
Experts said the MOU terms about data removal are alarming and can potentially constitute a breach of law.
“The clause is quite frankly explosive,” Reuben Guttman, a partner at Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC who focuses on ensuring the integrity of government programs, told Right to Know. “Anytime I see a public entity, I would be very concerned about destroying records.
“You can’t just willy nilly say, ‘Well, you know, the Chinese can tell us when to destroy a document.’ It doesn’t work like that. There has to be a whole protocol.”
Christopher Smith, a spokesperson for the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), told Right to Know that the lab was “built by the National Institutes of Health to help combat global health threats.”
“As a government-funded entity, UTMB is required to comply with applicable public information law obligations, including the preservation of all documentation of its research and findings.”
Representatives of UTMB and the Galveston lab didn’t respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.
The Galveston National Laboratory is one of two university-based, maximum-containment (BSL-4) laboratories in the United States focused on the study of highly infectious diseases and the development of medical countermeasures. It began collaborating with the WIV in 2013, a cooperation that entails training WIV scientists and conducting joint research programs. The then-Galveston lab Director James LeDuc, who retired last year, made multiple trips over the years to WIV.
The Galveston lab was also among the first in the world to receive samples of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly three weeks after LeDuc urged his Chinese counterparts to share the material.
The revelations contained in the 2017 MOU appear to contradict claims from WIV scientists that they would never scrub critical research information.
Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, who heads the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the WIV, had characterized allegations that her lab would delete such data as “baseless and appalling.”
“Even if we gave them all the records, they would still say we have hidden something or we have destroyed the evidence,” she said in a February interview with MIT Technology Review.
In September 2019, months before several of its researchers allegedly fell ill with COVID-like symptoms, the facility took its main database of virus samples offline.
The Wuhan lab’s safety standards have also attracted scrutiny since the pandemic originated in the city. Footage from 2017 showed that some researchers from the facility were feeding a bat while wearing only surgical gloves, and at least one researcher wore only a pair of regular glasses and a surgical mask when out collecting bat samples.
In April 2020, the Department of Education opened a probe of Galveston National Laboratory’s financial ties with the Wuhan lab. The Department ended the investigation in November (pdf).
That same month, LeDuc had asked Shi to review a draft briefing he prepared for the university and the congressional staff investigating the issue.
“Please review carefully and make any changes that you would like. I want this to be as accurate as possible and I certainly do not want to misrepresent any of your valuable contributions,” he wrote in an email to Shi, which Right to Know obtained. A day earlier, Shi declined to talk with LeDuc over the phone “due to the complicated situation,” but insisted that the virus “is not a leaky [sic] from our lab or any other labs.”
Smith, UTMB’s director of media relations, had told the investigative group that “the information Dr. LeDuc wanted Dr. Shi to review was a description of her research on coronaviruses as he understood it.”
In correspondence with others, LeDuc nonetheless acknowledged that he considered a lab accident a possible source of the pandemic.
“It is certainly possible that a lab accident was the source of the epidemic and I also agree that we can’t trust the Chinese government,” he wrote on April 10, 2020, according to another email obtained by the group.
The article has been updated with a response from the Department of Education.