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Trump’s State Department Officials Fought Over Whether The Coronavirus Was A Chinese Bioweapon

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In the final days of the Trump administration, the State Department was embroiled in a bitter dispute over China’s role in the origins of the coronavirus that is now spilling into public view.

In an open letter posted on Medium on Thursday, Christopher Ford, former assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, said he intervened to prevent the US government from “embarrassing and discrediting” itself by accusing China of having deliberately engineered the coronavirus — despite there being no evidence to make that case.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Ford said his colleagues were pushing to include allegations that China had breached the international Biological Weapons Convention in a State Department report to Congress, which could have set off a diplomatic crisis with one of the United States’ chief global rivals.

It is highly unusual for a former senior State Department official to publish a personal account of recent internal disputes. But Ford’s open letter comes in the midst of an acrimonious debate over the so-called lab-leak hypothesis for the emergence of the virus that causes COVID-19. The most extreme version of this theory suggests that Chinese scientists engineered SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon.

Sourcing his account to emails put into the public domain through reporting by Fox News and Vanity Fair, Ford’s Medium post detailed his increasingly fraught relationship with David Asher, a contractor in the State Department who was running its investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, and Thomas DiNanno, former acting head of the department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance (AVC). According to Vanity Fair, Asher and DiNanno viewed Ford as pushing a preconceived conclusion that the virus had a natural origin.

In the Medium post, Ford said that DiNanno signaled that the investigation was focusing on “China allegedly having violated the Biological Weapons Convention by creating the virus.” He added: “They seemed to believe that COVID-19 was a biological weapons (BW) effort gone awry — or perhaps even a BW agent deliberately unleashed upon the world.”

“They clearly appeared to be coming at this from a biological weapons angle,” Ford told BuzzFeed News. “They got squirrelly if you pushed back on whether there was evidence to support a biological weaponry finding over the coronavirus, but they seemed to be trying to build a case.”

Ford also told BuzzFeed News that Asher and DiNanno wanted to include the claim that China had breached the Biological Weapons Convention in an annual report prepared for Congress by the State Department. The report, mandated by US law, details nations’ compliance with international agreements on arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.

“Their legal arguments sounded pretty weak to me. They never presented evidence of actual [bioweapons] work,” Ford said, adding that his colleagues were also arguing that China should have been found in breach of the Biological Weapons Convention for failing to fully answer questions about the COVID-19 crisis.

In his open letter, Ford also alleged that Miles Yu, a military historian and specialist on China policy, had told DiNanno that former secretary of state Mike Pompeo wanted to keep the department’s bioweapons experts and the intelligence community out of the loop of the department’s investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Since the spring of 2020, Donald Trump and Pompeo had claimed to have evidence that the virus emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China.

Yu denied the claim that Pompeo had sought to keep experts from reviewing the investigation. “AVC’s inquiry was by no means a rogue and hush-hush operation — it cooperated with our national science labs, world renowned scientists of serious but different opinions, and several key agencies of the intelligence community,” Yu told BuzzFeed News by email. “Chris Ford is spinning a narrative contrary to facts to cover up his extreme hostility toward any worthy science-based inquiry supported and encouraged by Secretary Pompeo.”

Asher also disputed Ford’s account. “I was shocked that Ford didn’t have an investigation going on when I arrived and set about trying to get to the bottom of possible Chinese violations of the [Biological Weapons Convention]. Work that should be continuing in AVC,” he said by email.

DiNanno did not answer questions from BuzzFeed News, referring us to his account in the Vanity Fair article.

The debate over the origins of the virus has intensified since late March, when a joint WHO-China report came up empty-handed yet judged a lab leak as “extremely unlikely.” This prompted the US and 13 other governments to issue a statement calling for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.”

On May 26, President Joe Biden revealed he had ordered a 90-day intelligence review probing two scenarios: whether the coronavirus spread naturally from animals to people or was released in a lab accident. And in a call with a senior Chinese official Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed China to allow more studies by WHO experts into the origins of the coronavirus.

Leading scientists have also recently called for a deeper investigation into the origins of COVID-19, writing in the journal Science that “the two theories were not given balanced consideration” in the WHO-China study.

Ford is a conservative with a record of being hawkish on the threats posed to the US by China. What triggered his open letter was that his former colleagues had, in his view, mischaracterized him as being inherently opposed to the idea that the coronavirus may have escaped from a lab.

“I strongly supported looking into the ‘lab-leak’ hypothesis, which clearly is a real possibility,” Ford wrote in his Medium post. “But I’m not just saying this now. I said it at the time, too. A lot.”

The lab-leak hypothesis isn’t a single unified theory but, rather, a constellation of ideas around the origins of COVID-19.

Given a history of slipups at virology labs around the world, and a lack of full transparency from China, many scientists accept that there is no way to rule out the possibility that the virus was collected from wild animals and released from a lab in Wuhan by accident. Global attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where a team led by Shi Zhengli has cataloged potentially dangerous coronaviruses found in bats.

More elaborate versions of the theory suppose that scientists at the WIV or another lab in the city were engaged in well-intentioned but risky “gain of function” experiments, genetically modifying a bat coronavirus to study the changes that would make it more likely to infect people.

Suspicion has fallen on Shi because she had earlier collaborated on related experiments run by Ralph Baric, a virologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Baric’s team spliced the spike protein from one of Shi’s bat coronaviruses, which it uses to latch on to the cells it infects, into another coronavirus that had been adapted to infect mice.

Shi has denied running any similar gain-of-function experiments since that research was published in 2015. But secrecy surrounding research at the WIV and other labs means that speculation about this possibility continues.

The most extreme idea, regarded as a conspiracy theory by most experts, is that Chinese military scientists deliberately engineered SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as a bioweapon.

In his Medium post, Ford accuses DiNanno of “dragging his feet” over getting the bioweapon claims vetted by the intelligence community and scientific experts. But on Jan. 7 of this year, an online meeting involving scientists including Baric and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University who has repeatedly argued that the lab-leak theory deserves thorough investigation, was convened by the State Department to review the evidence.

They heard from Steven Quay, CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Atossa Therapeutics, who had conducted a statistical analysis that claimed “beyond reasonable doubt” that SARS-CoV-2 was derived in a lab. According to Vanity Fair, Quay’s presentation was criticized by Baric, who noted that his calculations ignored the multitude of bat coronaviruses that remain unknown to science.

In a summary of the meeting Ford sent to State Department colleagues the next day, he wrote, “[H]is statistical analysis is crippled by the fact that we have essentially no data to support key model inputs. Critically, we have no data on the vast majority of bat coronaviruses that exist in the wild.” Ford left the State Department the same day, after having previously announced his intention to step down.

DiNanno later responded, “On the contrary, we don’t need to know every bat coronavirus genome to understand the likelihood of a zoonotic [natural] vs. lab origin. We merely need to reliably estimate the number of bat coronaviruses there are, and factor this into our weighting of our present knowledge about bat coronaviruses.”

Baric and Relman did not respond to requests for comment.

In an email to BuzzFeed News, Quay defended his statistical analysis, saying it has been viewed online over 160,000 times. “I have received no substantive criticism of my work,” he said. “My sense of the meeting was that they were trying as much as possible to simply dismiss me so they could write their report and move on to something else.”

On Jan. 15, Pompeo’s State Department released a “fact sheet” on activities at the WIV, which criticized China’s secrecy around COVID-19.

Instead, it stated, based on intelligence reports, that the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

The fact sheet also repeated long-standing US concerns about China’s transparency about its past research on bioweapons: “For many years the United States has publicly raised concerns about China’s past biological weapons work, which Beijing has neither documented nor demonstrably eliminated, despite its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.” And it said the WIV had collaborated on classified research on behalf of the Chinese military since 2017.

But the statement did not make the claim that SARS-CoV-2 was the product of Chinese bioweapons research.

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Simone Biles Will Compete In The Gymnastics Balance Beam Final

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Simone Biles will compete in Tuesday’s balance beam final, her first since pulling out of multiple competitions for mental health reasons, USA Gymnastics announced Monday morning.

Last Tuesday the superstar gymnast withdrew in the middle of the team final after she stumbled upon landing during the vault. In a press conference afterwards, Biles said that she did not feel right mentally in the buildup to the event.

“I was just, like, shaking, could barely nap. I just never felt like this going into a competition before, and I tried to go out here and have fun,” Biles said.

On Wednesday, USA Gymnastics announced that Biles had also backed out of the individual all-around competition “in order to focus on her mental health.”

“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement at the time. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”

On Friday, Biles did a Q&A on Instagram and posted a practice video to further explain what she has been going through. She explained that the mental block started happening randomly the morning after the preliminary competitions.

“For anyone saying I quit. I didn’t quit my mind and body are simply not in sync,” she wrote.

The balance beam final will be Biles’ only individual shot at an Olympic Medal.

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These Heartwarming Photos From The Olympics Will Bring You Joy

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These Heartwarming Photos From The Olympics Will Bring You Joy

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Posted on July 30, 2021, at 4:24 p.m. ET


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Sunisa Lee hugs her coach after competing in the artistic gymnastics women’s all-around final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29.


Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images

Ivory Coast’s Marie-Josee Ta Lou reacts as she wins her race in the women’s 100m heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Italy’s Arianna Errigo (R) celebrates with her teammates after winning the women’s foil team bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021.


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Dominican Republic’s Brenda Castillo reacts after a point in the women’s preliminary round pool A volleyball match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021.


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USA’s forward Megan Rapinoe (R) and teammates celebrate after winning the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games women’s quarter-final football match between Netherlands and the USA at Yokohama International Stadium in Yokohama on July 30, 2021.


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France’s Teddy Riner (white) and France’s Romane Dicko share a moment after their respective judo matches during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Manuel Sanders of Team Germany celebrates with teammates on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega celebrates after winning the men’s 10000m final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


Charly Triballeau / AFP via Getty Images

Czech Republic’s Lukas Krpalek celebrates with his coach after his victory bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Second-placed Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei (L) and third-placed Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo celebrate after the men’s 10000m final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Great Britain’s Bethany Shriever and Kye Whyte celebrate their Gold and Silver medals respectively for the Cycling BMX Racing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Taiwan’s Lee Yang (L) and Wang Chi-lin celebrate winning their men’s doubles badminton match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


Hassan Ammar / AP

France Foil team celebrate defeating Italy in the women’s individual Foil semifinal competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics on July 29, 2021.


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Yusuke Inaba of Japan celebrates during the Men’s Olympic Waterpolo Tournament match between Team Greece and Team Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021.


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Lara Gonzalez Ortega and Soledad Lopez Jimenez of Team Spain celebrate after winning the Women’s Preliminary Round Group B handball match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021.


Andrew Boyers / Reuters

Players of China celebrate after a Basketball 3×3 Women’s match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on July 28, 2021.


Marko Djurica / Reuters

Team China celebrate winning gold and setting a world record at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on July 29, 2021.


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Australia’s Jessica Fox hugs members of her team after winning the gold medal in the Women’s C1 Canoe Slalom Final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan on July 29, 2021.


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Spain celebrates winning the women’s preliminary round group B handball match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021.


Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Pusarla V. Sindhu of Team India celebrates after her victory match at Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza on July 30, 2021.


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Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping of Team China celebrate at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


Charly Triballeau / AFP via Getty Images

Cuba’s Idalys Ortiz celebrates after winning her judo bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


Yuri Cortez / AFP via Getty Images

Brazil’s Alison Cerutti (L) and partner Alvaro Morais Filho celebrate winning their men’s preliminary beach volleyball match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021.


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Merel Smulders of Netherlands celebrates during the Women’s BMX Racing Run on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Brazil’s Abner Teixeira lifts a fist after winning a quarter-final boxing match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


Yuri Cortez / AFP via Getty Images

Argentina’s players celebrate their victory in the men’s preliminary round pool B volleyball match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Japan’s Aaron Wolf takes a moment after winning the judo men’s -100kg gold medal bout at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021.


Alexander Hassenstein / Getty Images

Niklas Wellen of Team Germany celebrates with teammate Timm Alexander Herzbruch after scoring their team’s first goal during a match between Germany and Netherlands at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Nikola Mektic of Team Croatia and Mate Pavic of Team Croatia (bottom) celebrate victory against Marin Cilic of Team Croatia and Ivan Dodig of Team Croatia on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021.


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Team Japan jumps for joy after winning the men’s Fencing Team gold medal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 30, 2021 in Chiba, Japan.


Anne-christine Poujoulat / AFP via Getty Images

China’s Chen Meng celebrates after winning the women’s singles table tennis final match at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 29, 2021.


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(From L) Dutch Rowers Ellen Hogerwerf, Karolien Florijn, Ymkje Clevering, Veronique Meester, Lisa Scheenaard, Roos de Jong, Marieke Keijser and Ilse Paulis celebrate during the medal celebration at the Olympic Festival on July 30, 2021.


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Slovenian Olympic gold medalist Primoz Roglic, joined by his son, greets his fans after arriving at Ljubljana Airport on July 30, 2021. On Wednesday, Primoz Roglic won the road cycling individual time trial gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn’t want you to see.

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US Olympic Fencers Wore Pink Masks To Protest Against Their Teammate Accused Of Sexual Assault

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Three fencers on the men’s US Olympic team were wearing pink masks when they arrived Friday in Tokyo for their opening match against Japan.

But the coordinated masks weren’t a coincidence — they were a planned protest by the trio against a teammate who is accused of sexual assault, sources close to the team told BuzzFeed News.

Photos shared on social media showed three of the four athletes on the men’s épée team — Jake Hoyle, Curtis McDowald, and Yeisser Ramirez — wearing pink masks, while teammate Alen Hadzic — who is under investigation for sexual assault — wore a black one.

“The disdain was clear,” one source told BuzzFeed News.

Despite facing at least three allegations of past sexual misconduct, Hadzic was picked as an alternate on the men’s épée team for the 2020 Olympics, causing dismay and outrage among Team USA fencers, as detailed in a BuzzFeed News investigation.

His inclusion prompted six women fencers, including two Olympic athletes, to urge the Olympic Committee not to allow him to represent the US as his presence, they said, was a “direct affront” to fellow athletes and put them at risk.

“We are gravely concerned about the impact Mr. Hadzic’s potential presence will have on other Team USA athletes,” the women wrote on May 20

While the US Center for SafeSport, the nonprofit agency responsible for protecting athletes from abuse, suspended Hadzic from the Olympics last month due to the investigation, he fought to get his prohibition lifted through an arbitration process.

USA Fencing created a “safety plan” to keep Hadzic away from women and out of the Olympic village which included him traveling and staying separately from his teammates.

He was also forbidden from practicing with women teammates.

Hadzic has denied allegations of sexual misconduct, telling USA Today that “they’re untruths.” His attorney, Michael Palma, told the New York Times that his client had never committed any acts of sexual assault.

USA Fencing did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the pink masks.

But the stunt earned praise from US fencer and 2016 Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad.

“Kudos to the team for taking a stand,” she tweeted on Friday.

While Hadzic did not participate on Friday, the team lost to Japan and came in 9th.

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