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Records show top US biosafety expert urged counterpart in Wuhan to answer crucial questions on COVID-19 origins
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Records show top US biosafety expert urged counterpart in Wuhan to answer crucial questions on COVID-19 origins

A top American biosafety expert with close ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology urged Chinese scientists in early 2020 to begin an "investigation" into whether COVID-19 could have been leaked from the institute, emails reveal.

Emails published by the nonprofit investigative group U.S. Right to Know show that Dr. James LeDuc, a professor and former director of Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, encouraged his Chinese colleagues to be transparent and prepare to answer questions about their work to address speculation that the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from the Wuhan lab.

LeDuc is a renowned expert on biosafety with years of experience operating a biosafety level 4 laboratory — the highest safety level designation, reserved for labs that work with the most dangerous pathogens, like the Ebola or Marburg viruses. His lab in Galveston has worked with China since at least 2013, when construction on the Wuhan lab began, and he has made several trips to Wuhan to train staff since at least 1986. LeDuc's Galveston lab also hosted two Chinese post-doctoral students, who were trained to work safely in BSL-4 facilities and who returned to China to work in the Wuhan lab.

In early 2020, after the first outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, China, many speculated that the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology and its coronavirus research may have been connected to the origins of the virus.

In a Feb. 9, 2020, email to Wuhan Institute Professor Yuan Zhiming, previously the director of the WIV BSL-4 laboratory, LeDuc asked the Chinese scientist to "aggressively address these rumors and presumably false accusations quickly and provide definitive, honest information to counter misinformation."

“If there are weaknesses in your program, now is the time to admit them and get them corrected. I trust that you will take my suggestions in the spirit of one friend trying to help another during a very difficult time,” he wrote.

LeDuc and Yuan are colleagues who in 2018 co-authored an article in Science magazine that urged the construction of new maximum biocontainment laboratories to fight dangerous diseases. In the article, they discussed their "partnership" and wrote that they had "engaged in short- and long-term personnel exchanges focused on biosafety training, building operations and maintenance, and collaborative scientific investigations in biocontainment."

In his email to Yuan, LeDuc posed a series of questions he believed the Wuhan Institute of Virology needed to answer as part of an investigation into whether COVID-19 was "the result of a release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (main campus or new BSL3/BSL4 facilities)."

"Where is coronavirus research conducted? What level of biocontainment?" was one question.

"What are the coronaviruses in your possession that are most closely related to nCoV [novel coronaviruses] based on genetic sequences and are able to replicate in culture?" was another.

"Is anyone on your team conducting gain of function studies, recombination studies or any other studies that may have resulted in the creation of the nCoV ?" asked a third.

These and many other questions asked by LeDuc in Feb. 2020 about the possibility that COVID-19 was engineered or found in nature, collected by the lab, and then accidentally released were not answered and remain unanswered today.

LeDuc did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

World Health Organization-led investigations into COVID-19's origins have been stonewalled by China, and a U.S. intelligence report on the origins of the virus presented by President Joe Biden in August was inconclusive because of a lack of transparency from the Chinese government.

China has even frustrated U.S. Right to Know's attempts at an independent investigation. So have American universities and federal agencies.

LeDuc's emails were obtained by the group with a public records request through the Texas Public Information Act that was made on July 3, 2020. The University of Texas Medical Branch did not produce the requested documents until Nov. 23, 2021, more than 16 months later. USRTK said a second TPIA request filed with the university system on Sept. 23, 2020, also remains unanswered 14 months later.

On Nov. 15, 2021, UTMB sent a letter to the Texas attorney general's office asking to withhold certain requested documents because of outside "third parties" that objected to their release.

"We have notified the affected third parties of the request and sent notice to advise them of their opportunity to object to the release of their documents (TAB 4). The third parties have not agreed to the release of the information at issue," the letter states.

One of the "third parties" listed is none other than Dr. Yuan Zhiming, who now works for the state-controlled Chinese Academy of Sciences in addition to his association with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Gary Ruskin, the executive director for U.S. Right to Know, called the interference from the Wuhan institute "outrageous."

"It is outrageous that the Wuhan Institute of Virology should be allowed to block the release of documents under the Texas Public Information Act related to the origins of #COVID19," he tweeted on Nov. 16.

"Why is @utsystem abetting the WIV in choking off transparency?" he asked.

In an email to TheBlaze, Ruskin said, "It's been quite a challenge to pry information about the origins of Covid-19 out of the clenched fingers of various federal agencies and universities across the world."

He noted that USRTK has filed eight FOIA lawsuits to force various government agencies to hand over documents and said "more are probably coming."

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