The Biden State Department ended an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that was investigating whether the virus stemmed from a leak out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Fox News has confirmed.
The Biden administration terminated the inquiry – which was being led out of the State Department’s arms control and verification bureau and initially launched at the request of former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – after being briefed on the team’s initial findings in February and March.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday denied shutting down the inquiry: “There has been incorrect reporting that the Biden-Harris administration shut down an investigation by the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control and Verification (AVC) into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.” He said the team’s work ended after delivering a report in February and March, adding that “all relevant parts of the Department continue to work with the interagency on this matter.”
“The world continues to have serious questions about the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, including its origins within the Peoples Republic of China,” Price continued. “China’s position that their part in this investigation is complete is disappointing and at odds with the rest of the international community that is working collaboratively across the board to bring an end to this pandemic and improve global health security.”
“The lab origin theory is very possible and China must be held to account,” former Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation Chris Ford told Fox News on Wednesday. Ford said he found out this past December about the AVC investigation, which had been kept secret from him and bypassed department and intelligence community biological experts. He said the team had been told not to share its work with him or the intelligence community. “I had procedural concerns and structural concerns,” he went on.
A State Department official earlier told Fox News that Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not disband any cell looking into the origins of COVID-19, and that the department only employed a single contractor who was conducting research on several topics – including coronavirus. That contractor, according to the official, left the State Department before Blinken’s confirmation. The official said the inquiry was closed amid concerns about methodology.
The Biden administration’s investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic is currently being led out of the White House National Security Council.
Fox News has learned that David Asher was the contractor leading the investigation. Asher has a history of investigative work tracking money for the AQ Khan network, North Korea’s nuclear program, and top Al Qaeda leaders, but has fallen under scrutiny from former State Department officials.
In a statement to Fox News, Asher defended the investigation, and said that, at the time, some State Department colleagues “were deliberately playing down possible links to China’s biological weapons program.”
“It is U.S. law to engage in effective arms control and nonproliferation, not facilitate it via ‘scientific cooperation’ in the name of threat reduction or refusal to engage in effective compliance with Communist countries that openly aim to incorporate synthetic biology into the future of warfare (apparently with our naive material and scientific assistance),” Asher said.
“We don’t know for certain what happened in Wuhan but we had every reason to investigate and ask questions,” Asher continued. “As the State Department’s Jan. 15 statement said – and as additional disclosures and expert analyses of the last few months have underscored – there is probable cause for deep suspicion.”
Asher, who left the State Department at the end of the Trump administration, had been hired as a contractor, but had helped to put together the Jan. 15 memo released by Pompeo, using declassified intelligence. CNN first reported the shutdown of the probe.
That memo said the Wuhan Institute of Virology collaborated on “secret projects” with China’s military, and claims that “despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects within China’s military” since “at least 2017.”
Asher told Fox News that “certainly the Chinese Communist Party engaged in a huge coverup over the stealth ability of COVID to transmit human-to-human.”
“The coverup continues via refusal to allow WHO access, accept CDC offers to assist, and simply tell the truth of this pandemic’s endemic dangerous, incessant and pernicious injurious traits, which has caused huge injury to the American people and citizens of the world, Chinese citizens included,” he said. “Does anyone sane doubt that?”
Asher added that he doesn’t “know why the Biden team would doubt an effort to carry out a fair and accurate investigation into a subject that increasing numbers of leading scientists are now also calling to study.”
“At the State Department in the last months of the last administration we didn’t draw or assert any conclusions, but we worked successfully to reveal certain facts and raise significant questions about the clear plausibility of a lab leak origin,” Asher said. “This was a global public service, and it is good that experts and journalists are increasingly turning their own attention to the issue, albeit belatedly.”
David Feith, a former State Department official during the Trump administration, was part of the small team working with Asher on the COVID origin investigation. Feith, this week, underscored the importance of learning how the coronavirus originated.
“Getting further information about this, getting it from honest researchers, honest investigators and press inquiries and getting it from the U.S. government is absolutely essential to finding out what happened in the origin of COVID, which is not only important for understanding what we’re still living through and for basic questions of responsibility, but most importantly, it’s absolutely essential to the future,” Feith said on “Fox News at Night” Monday.
Feith, though, said there has been a “terrible failure for 15 months” on the part of the public and the U.S. government to recognize “the plausibility of the lab leak possibility.”
“Elevating this now as a political matter, as a diplomatic matter, is overdue but essential,” Feith said.
The Biden administration is calling for a transparent international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, with the White House calling for China and the World Health Organization to provide data and information necessary for U.S. officials to draw conclusions.
The White House has criticized the WHO and China for its “phase one” report for its lack of transparency. That report dismissed claims that COVID-19 had escaped from the lab in Wuhan, and called the theory of zoonotic transmission, or transfer of infection from animals to humans, “likely to very likely.”
The report called the prospect that the virus transmitted from an animal reservoir to an animal host, followed by subsequent spread within that intermediate host that then transmits it to humans, “likely to very likely.” It also said the idea that the virus may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology “extremely unlikely.”
The report called for further investigation in every area except the lab leak hypothesis.
“We’re hopeful that we can move into a more transparent, independent phase two investigation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, again calling for “access to the underlying data and information.”
“An international investigation led by the World Health Organization is something that we’ve actually been pressing for for several months in coordination with a range of partners around the world,” Psaki continued. “We need that data. We need that information from the Chinese government. What we can’t do, and what I would caution anyone from doing is leaping ahead of an actual international process.”
She added: “We don’t have enough data and information to jump to a conclusion at this point in time.”
And a State Department official told Fox News that Blinken is committed to getting more details on the origins of COVID-19, as both a function of accountability, but also to ensure the U.S. and the American people are protected from public health threats in the future.
The official added that the U.S. and the world need transparency from China, which Beijing has not yet allowed, and said the State Department is working closely with their administration partners and international partners to get the answers needed.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is one of China’s top virus research labs, built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and has faced criticism over its transparency throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
China has promoted unproven theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere, or was even been brought into the country from overseas with imports of frozen seafood tainted with the virus, a notion rejected by international scientists and agencies.
Meanwhile, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci this week defended “modest” collaboration with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on studying bat coronaviruses while asserting that the agency did not allocate the money to do “gain of function” research.
During a House Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday, Fauci was asked about a $600,000 grant from NIAID that went to a group called EcoHealth Alliance, which then paid the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study the risk that bat coronaviruses could infect humans.
“It would have been almost a dereliction of our duty if we didn’t study this, and the only way you can study these things is you’ve got to go where the action is,” Fauci said, referencing the early-2000s SARS outbreak, which is presumed to have come from bats.
“You don’t want to study bats in Fairfax County, Virginia, to find out what the animal-human interface is that might lead to a jumping of species,” Fauci continued “So we had a modest collaboration with very respectable Chinese scientists who were world experts on coronavirus, and we did that through a sub-grant from a larger grant to EcoHealth.”
Fauci added: “The larger grant was about $600,000 over a period of five years. So it was a modest amount. The purpose of it was to study the animal-human interface, to do surveillance and to determine if these bat viruses were even capable of” infecting humans.
Francis Collins, the director of NIH, had said earlier in the hearing that the American taxpayer money that went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology was not approved to conduct gain of function research, which is research that involves modifying a virus to make it more infectious among humans.
“They were not approved by NIH for doing gain of function research,” Collins said. “We are of course not aware of other sources of funds or other activities they might have undertaken outside of what our approved grant allowed.”
A spokesperson for EcoHealth told FOX Business on Tuesday that its funding from the NIH is frozen with no guidance on when it will be unfrozen. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that during July 2020 the NIH told EcoHealth its funding would be frozen amid concerns that the Wuhan Institute of Virology may not have been following safety standards and that EcoHealth was not properly monitoring the Wuhan lab’s activities.
The letter notably said NIH “received reports that the Wuhan Institute of Virology … has been conducting research at its facilities in China that pose serious bio-safety concerns,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, Fauci, himself has said he is “not convinced” COVID-19 developed naturally outside the Wuhan lab, and said the U.S. “should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened.”
Fox News’ Rich Edson and Tyler Olson contributed to this report.