The Chinese lab at the center of the disputed lab-leak origins theory for COVID-19 had an agreement with a U.S. lab in Texas giving both parties the right to ask their partner to destroy all records of their work, according to a memorandum obtained by the non-profit watchdog group U.S. Right to Know.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch signed a memorandum of understanding in 2017 that states either lab can ask the other to return or “destroy” any “secret files, materials and equipment.”
Both of these labs study the world’s most dangerous pathogens, and they have worked together since 2013, making their collaboration formal in 2018. Researchers at UTMB have received federal funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct bio-safety training with their partners in Wuhan, who operate under the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences. The objective of the partnership was to promote research cooperation between the U.S. and China to control infectious diseases and protect “laboratory safety and global health security,” according to the memo.
The document states that either party “is entitled to ask the other to destroy and/or return the secret files, materials and equipment without any backups.”
This confidentiality clause extends to any communications, documents, data, or equipment resulting from the two labs’ collaboration and is retained after the agreement’s five year term ends in October 2022.
“All cooperation … shall be treated as confidential information by the parties,” the memo states.
Experts that spoke to USRTK said the agreement contains broad language that should raise red flags, given that the Chinese government has obstructed international investigations into the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins and the Wuhan lab has previously been accused of deleting viral sequences from a NIH database that could shed a light on where the virus came from.
“The clause is quite frankly explosive,” said Reuben Guttman, a partner at Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC who specializes in whistleblower cases. “Anytime I see a public entity, I would be very concerned about destroying records.”
Guttman said that as a public university, the UTMB lab faces high standards for record-keeping under state and federal laws.
“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,” he said. “There has to be a whole protocol.”
Legal experts interviewed by the Houston Chronicle agreed that records of the university’s collaboration with the Wuhan lab would be subject to record-keeping laws and that the university should not be able to delete them because of a contractual agreement.
“You can’t contract away obligations under a statute,” Austin attorney Bill Aleshire, a specialist in public record laws, told the newspaper. “Those are public records and … Galveston can’t destroy records that are part of a publicly funded document. And Wuhan sure as hell can’t ask Galveston to destroy its records.”
In a statement, UTMB spokesman Chris Smith Gonzalez told the Chronicle that the university “has not been asked to destroy any documents nor would UTMB follow through with such a request.”
“As a government-funded entity, UTMB complies with all applicable public information law obligations, including the preservation of all documentation of its research and findings,” he said.
The university added that it does not plan to renew the agreement with the Wuhan lab.
The language of the agreement with the Galveston lab raises questions about the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s commitment to transparency and potential willingness to delete data on the orders of Chinese Communist Party authorities.
Chinese government officials removed genetic data from 22,000 virus samples from an internet database in September 2019 and has since refused to turn over data, frustrating scientists and U.S. intelligence officials investigating the origins of the pandemic. In June 2021, an American scientist named Dr. Jesse Bloom published research that showed early COVID-19 virus samples from the Wuhan seafood market — where the first major outbreak of the virus was reported — were not fully representative of the viruses actually present in Wuhan at the time. Scientists said that Bloom’s work suggested COVID-19 had been spreading in Wuhan earlier than Chinese officials claimed and called for greater transparency from China.
Bloom also discovered that the Chinese scientists had asked an NIH database to remove viral sequences from its database and that the government complied with their request. NIH later confirmed this to the Telegraph.
Dr. Zhengli Shi, the lead researcher at the Wuhan lab, has previously denied accusations from Western bio-security experts that her lab deleted records relevant to the origins of COVID-19.
“Even if we gave them all the records, they would still say we have hidden something or we have destroyed the evidence,” she told MIT Technology Review in an interview, calling the accusations “baseless and appalling.”
Scientists are divided on the origins of COVID-19, with most believing that the virus naturally evolved, although a lab-leak origin has not been ruled out. The Chinese government’s lack of transparency is obstructing the truth.