Josh Rogin's WashPo column & book misrepresents a U.S. diplomatic cable from Wuhan

Setting the record straight with the Washington Post Opinion Columnist

Your Pekingnologist is not his usual self today, and this is not a piece typical of this newsletter. But it’s also not unprecedented, see Putting Anne-Marie Brady's and Adrian Zenz's characterization of Gao Wei into context published in January.

This piece tries to systematically debunk a Washington Post Opinion Column by Josh Rogin, which, in the Post’s own words, launched claims that coronavirus escaped from Chinese lab and sparked unproven speculation from senior U.S. officials beginning in April that the outbreak occurred as a result of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

That’s why this 3,900-word takedown is written, and hopefully, you will read it.

Usual disclaimers apply, including this is a PERSONAL newsletter (and it was recently featured in a Bloomberg News report.) The views here do NOT represent my day-job employer Xinhua News Agency, much less “Chinese media” or “China.”

***

Table of Contents

PART I THE CABLE

PART II THE OPINION COLUMN

PART III FEW DIRECT QUOTES, IN MISPLACED CONTEXTS

PART IV NUMEROUS INDIRECT INFO, INSINUATING AND INFLAMMATORY

PART V SOME MORE

PART VI NEW BOOK, OLD TRICKS

***

PART I THE CABLE

In January 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sent a Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) cable back home, reporting on a visit to China’s first Bio Safety Level 4 (BSL-4) Laboratory in then-obscure Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

After a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the Washington Post, the State Department, in July 2020, released the following cable with redactions (redactions are not unusual).

SBU

MRN: 18 BEIJING 138

Date/DTG: Jan 19, 2018 / 1907392 JAN 18

From: AMEMBASSY BEING

Action: WASHDC, SECSTATE ROUTINE

E.O.: 13526

TAGS: SHLH, ETRD, ECON, PGOV, CN

Captions: SENSITIVE

Reference: 17 WUHAN 48

Subject: China Opens First Bio Safety Level 4 Laboratory

1.(SBU) Summary and Comment: The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has recently established what is reportedly China’s first Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory in Wuhan. This state-of-the-art facility is designed for prevention and control research on diseases that require the highest level of biosafety and biosecurity containment. Ultimately, scientists hope the lab will contribute to the development of new antiviral drugs and vaccines, but its current productivity is limited by a shortage of the highly trained technicians and investigators required to safely operate a BSL-4 laboratory and a lack of clarity in related Chinese government policies and guidelines. REDACTIONS END Summary and Comment

China Investing in Infectious Disease Control

2, (U) Between November 2002 and July 2003, China faced an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which, according to the World Health Organization, resulting in 8,098 cases and leading to 774 deaths reported in 37 countries. A majority of cases occurred in China, where the fatality rate was 9.6%. This incident convinced China to prioritize international cooperation for infectious disease control. An aspect of this prioritization was China’s work with the Jean Merieux BSL-4 Laboratory in Lyon, France, to build China’s first high containment laboratory at Wuhan’s Institute of Virology (WIV), an institute under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Construction took 11 years and $44 million USD, and construction on the facility was completed on January 31, 2015. Following two years of effort, which is not unusual for such facilities, the WIV lab was accredited in February 2017 by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment. It occupies four floors and consists of over 32,000 square feet. WIV leadership now considers the lab operational and ready for research on class-four pathogens (P4), among which are the most virulent viruses that pose a high risk of aerosolized person-to-person transmission.

Unclear Guidelines on Virus Access and a Lack of Trained Talent Impede Research

3. (SBU) In addition to accreditation, the lab must also receive permission from the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) to initiate research on specific highly contagious pathogens. According to some WIV scientists, it is unclear how NHFPC determines what viruses can or cannot be studied in the new laboratory. To date, WIV has obtained permission for research on three viruses: Ebola virus, Nipah virus, and Xinjiang hemorrhagic fever virus (a strain of Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever found in China’s Xinjiang Province). Despite this permission, however, the Chinese government has not allowed the WIV to import Ebola viruses for study in the BSL-4 lab. Therefore, WIV scientists are frustrated and have pointed out that they won’t be able to conduct research project with Ebola viruses at the new BSL-4 lab despite of the permission.

REDACTIONS

Thus, while the BSL-4 lab is ostensibly fully accredited, its utilization is limited by lack of access to specific organisms and by opaque government review and approval processes. As long as this situation continues, Beijing’s commitment to prioritizing infectious disease control - on the regional and international level, especially in relation to highly pathogenic viruses, remains in doubt.

REDACTIONS noted that the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory. University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB), which has one of several well-established BSL-4 labs in the United States (supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID of NIH)), has scientific collaborations with WIV, which may help alleviate this talent gap over time. Reportedly, researchers from GTMB are helping train technicians who work in the WIV BSL-4 lab.  Despite this REDACTIONS they would welcome more help from U.S. and international organizations as they establish “gold standard” operating procedures and training courses for the first time in China. As China is building more BSL-4 labs, including one in Harbin Veterinary Research Institute subordinated to the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) for veterinary research use REDACTIONS the training for technicians and investigators working on dangerous pathogens will certainly be in demand.

Despite Limitations, WIV Researchers Produce SARS Discoveries

6. (SBU) The ability of WIV scientists to undertake productive research despite limitations on the use of the new BSL-4 facility is demonstrated by a recent publication on the origins of SARS. Over a five-year study REDACTIONS (and their research team) widely sampled bats in Yunnan province with funding support from NIAID/NIH, USAID, and several Chinese funding agencies. The study results were published in PLoS Pathogens online on Nov. 30, 2017, and it demonstrated that a SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from horseshoe bats in a single cave contain all the building blocks of the pandemic SARS-coronavirus genome that caused the human outbreak. These results strongly suggest that the highly pathogenic SARS-coronavirus originated in this bat population. Most importantly, the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like disease. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention. REDCATIONS WIV scientists are allowed to study the SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from bats while they are precluded from studying human-disease causing SARS coronavirus in their new BSL-4 lab until permission for such work is granted by the NHFCP.

Signature: BRANSTAD

(BRANSTAD is then U.S. Ambassador to China.)

This is succinct English, so no explanations or references. Just some highlights, via its own Summary and Comment and sub-headlines:

Summary and Comment: …This state-of-the-art facility is designed for prevention and control research on diseases that require the highest level of biosafety and biosecurity containment. Ultimately, scientists hope the lab will contribute to the development of new antiviral drugs and vaccines, but its current productivity is limited by a shortage of the highly trained technicians and investigators required to safely operate a BSL-4 laboratory and a lack of clarity in related Chinese government policies and guidelines.

China Investing in Infectious Disease Control

Unclear Guidelines on Virus Access and a Lack of Trained Talent Impede Research

Despite Limitations, WIV Researchers Produce SARS Discoveries

In a Twitter thread, Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist currently affiliated with Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security, gave her takes:

***

PART II THE OPINION COLUMN

Now contrast your reading, plus Dr. Rasmussen’s, with this Washington Post opinion column from Josh Rogin, a Post columnist and political analyst with CNN.

To Rogin’s credit, he got to the cable earlier than everyone and published the piece in April 2020, when it was not in public view. Here are some paragraphs:

Opinion: State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses

Two years before the novel coronavirus pandemic upended the world, U.S. Embassy officials visited a Chinese research facility in the city of Wuhan several times and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats. 

What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as Sensitive But Unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help. The first cable, which I obtained, also warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.

“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” states the Jan. 19, 2018, cable, which was drafted by two officials from the embassy’s environment, science and health sections who met with the WIV scientists. (The State Department declined to comment on this and other details of the story.)

The cables argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous.

“Most importantly,” the cable states, “the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

Sources familiar with the cables said they were meant to sound an alarm about the grave safety concerns at the WIV lab, especially regarding its work with bat coronaviruses. The embassy officials were calling for more U.S. attention to this lab and more support for it, to help it fix its problems.

“The cable was a warning shot,” one U.S. official said. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”

This was an instant hit. Columbia Journalism Review’s The Media Today highlighted it as top news of the day:

YESTERDAY, JOSH ROGIN, of the Washington Post, published a column that appeared in the paper’s Global Opinions section, but contained bombshell new reporting. Per Rogin, in early 2018, officials from the US Embassy in Beijing repeatedly visited a laboratory in Wuhan where researchers were studying coronaviruses in bats, and their possible transmissibility to humans. Embassy staff were so concerned about safety issues they said they’d observed on their visits that they sent two warnings back to the State Department, urging the US government to give the lab support. In the first of the cables, which Rogin obtained, officials warned that the lab’s work on coronaviruses “represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.”

Rogin’s story was shared widely on social media, including by prominent mainstream journalists. “Yikes,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted; “WOW,” Charles M. Blow, a columnist at the New York Times, added, “I didn’t see this coming.” Conservative pundits and politicians seized on it, too; Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, called the article a “DAMN big deal.”

Absent access to the full cable at the time, many took Rogin’s column at face value. Some didn’t.

***

PART III FEW DIRECT QUOTES, IN MISPLACED CONTEXTS

The cable, after redactions, includes around 900 words. Rogin’s direct quotes from it are around 100 words in two paragraphs, quite thin in the 1,350-word column.

The first quote:

“During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,”

appeared after Rogin had fixed the narrative by writing:

two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats.

took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats

concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables

The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses 

warns that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.

1) Whether Rogin’s narrative of danger and warning aligns with the cable you’ve just read is up to you.

2) In the cable, the quoted sentence was placed under the sub-headline Unclear Guidelines on Virus Access and a Lack of Trained Talent Impede Research, as one piece of evidence to question if Beijing was acting too slowly to ramp up the WIV lab’s productivity.

3) The cable also quickly used the decidedly softer “this talent gap” to describe the situation - unmentioned in Rogin’s column

The only other direct quote

“Most importantly,” the cable states, “the researchers also showed that various SARS-like coronaviruses can interact with ACE2, the human receptor identified for SARS-coronavirus. This finding strongly suggests that SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like diseases. From a public health perspective, this makes the continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

1) As mentioned in the discussion of the first quote, Rogin had built the narrative of danger and warning. By this paragraph, it only got darker, with further help from

The cables argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous

Again, whether Rogin’s narrative aligns with the cable you’ve just read is up to you.

2) In the cable, not available to the public at the time, the quoted sentence was in the part sub-headlined “Despite Limitations, WIV Researchers Produce SARS Discoveries,” where the U.S. diplomats sounded impressed by the Chinese scientists at the WIV lab overcoming regulatory difficulties: “The ability of WIV scientists to undertake productive research despite limitations on the use of the new BSL-4 facility is demonstrated.

With no access to the full cable at the time, Dr. Rasmussen made what turned out to be an accurate call: the quote “doesn’t suggest there were safety issues specifically relating to WIV’s work on bat COVs capable of using human ACE2 as a receptor

***

PART IV NUMEROUS INDIRECT INFO, INSINUATING AND INFLAMMATORY

Rogin’s column includes a huge amount of indirect information, including

The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the WIV lab and proposed more attention and help.

The cables argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous.

The cable tells us that there have long been concerns about the possibility of the threat to public health that came from this lab’s research, if it was not being adequately conducted and protected,” he said.

The cable was a warning shot,” one U.S. official said. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”

The cable tells us that there have long been concerns about the possibility of the threat to public health that came from this lab’s research, if it was not being adequately conducted and protected,” he [a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley] said.

Sources familiar with the cables said they were meant to sound an alarm about the grave safety concerns at the WIV lab, especially regarding its work with bat coronaviruses.

one senior administration official told me that the cables provide one more piece of evidence

the cable pointed to the danger there and increases the impetus to find out, he said.

1) Again, whether Rogin’s narrative aligns with the cable you’ve just read is up to you.

2) Please note all the indirect information quoted above is what Rogin and others telling you what the cable says.

But Rogin was in fact in possession of the cable, so it was apparent he wouldn’t let the cable do its own talk, which would be much more direct and convincing but is also revealing.

***

PART V SOME MORE

Subject: China Opens First Bio Safety Level 4 Laboratory

1.(SBU) Summary and Comment: The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has recently established what is reportedly China’s first Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory in Wuhan. This state-of-the-art facility is designed for prevention and control research on diseases that require the highest level of biosafety and biosecurity containment. Ultimately, scientists hope the lab will contribute to the development of new antiviral drugs and vaccines, but its current productivity is limited by a shortage of the highly trained technicians and investigators required to safely operate a BSL-4 laboratory and a lack of clarity in related Chinese government policies and guidelines. REDACTIONS END Summary and Comment

1) The subject is simply China Opens First Bio Safety Level 4 Laboratory, not a hint of “risky lab,” “dangerous studies,” or “we must intervene.”

2) The only adjective to describe the WIV lab was state-of-the-art,” in stark contrast with Rogin’s description in the lede paragraph: “about inadequate safety at the lab, which was conducting risky studies”.

The “risky studies” is particularly problematic, as already explained by Dr. Rasmussen:

Readers are easily (mis)led by “risky studies” - and later in the column, “lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic” - to think the cable says WIV lab’s work is risky.

But the cable - it’s my turn - meant to say the work’s finding - “SARS-like coronaviruses from bats can be transmitted to humans to cause SARS-like disease” - shows potential risks for human beings - not the “studies” or “work”.

3) The cable does mention a shortage of the highly trained technicians and investigators required to safely operate”. But it was used squarely to explain why its current productivity is limited.”

After Dr. Rasmussen and others raised key questions, Rogin declined to release the full cable.

In July 2020, the State Department released the cable after the Washington Post - to its full credit - FOIAed it and launched a lawsuit. Rogin wrote a Twitter thread purporting to reveal what had been redacted by State.

Whether the purportedly redacted parts “say the Chinese government is mishandling its oversight and warn of the risk of an infectious disease event coming from the lab” as Rogin claimed, again, is up to you. But the logic was troubling:

1) The release was in July 2020, when Trump was demanding China “must be held accountable” amid a deepening crisis between the two countries. It defies logic that the U.S. State Department would cover for China in the redactions.

2) Had the redactions been so damning to Beijing, it’s difficult to imagine Rogin wouldn’t have published them in April when he quoted only two paragraphs from the cable - 100 words in his 1,350-word column.

As a courtesy, below is his thread purportedly showing the redacted parts. There are no corroborations from the State Department, but I’ll give Rogin the benefit of the doubt here.

However, the purported redactions include some surprisingly rookie mistakes. For example, calling Prof. Zhengli Shi “Professor Zheng” twice shows the U.S. diplomats in China didn’t know such basics as Chinese surnames, and couldn’t get the WIV lab chief’s name right after visiting.

A Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Cornell wrote:

But Rogin’s opinion column did have a huge impact, in the words of news-reporting colleagues in his own Washington Post:

launched claims that coronavirus escaped from Chinese lab

sparked unproven speculation…the outbreak occurred as a result of an accident

The damage had been done, but the publication of the cable was perhaps a bit mitigating. Otherwise, the public will still be kept In Darkness, where, according to the Washington Post, Democracy Dies.

***

PART VI NEW BOOK, OLD TRICKS

In his recent book, Rogin elaborated on the episode, as seen in a long excerpt on Politico Magazine in March 2021, but unfortunately without addressing the questions above.

By this time, the cable had been published, so Rogin no longer had to keep the cable in secrecy for reasons which theoretically could include protecting his sources.

But the excerpt did not quote any more from the cable. Instead, he doubled down on using vague characterizations from anonymous third parties.

Here are some paragraphs from the excerpt

In 2018, Diplomats Warned of Risky Coronavirus Experiments in a Wuhan Lab. No One Listened.

After seeing a risky lab, they wrote a cable warning to Washington. But it was ignored.

Its research on bat viruses had already drawn the attention of U.S. diplomats and officials at the Beijing Embassy in late 2017, prompting them to alert Washington that the lab’s own scientists had reported “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”

……

When they sat down with the scientists at the WIV, the American diplomats were shocked by what they heard. The Chinese researchers told them they didn’t have enough properly trained technicians to safely operate their BSL-4 lab.

……

The researchers boasted that they may have found the cave where the original SARS coronavirus originated. But all the U.S. diplomats cared about was that these scientists had discovered three new viruses that had a unique characteristic: they contained a "spike protein” that was particularly good at grabbing on to a specific receptor in human lung cells known as an ACE2 receptor.

……

More should be done to help the lab meet top safety standards, they said, and they urged Washington to get on it. They also warned that the WIV researchers had found new bat coronaviruses could easily infect human cells, and which used the same cellular route that had been used by the original SARS coronavirus.

Taken together, those two points—a particularly dangerous group of viruses being studied in a lab with real safety problems—were intended as a warning about a potential public-health crisis, one of the cable writers told me. They kept the cables unclassified because they wanted more people back home to be able to read and share them, according to the cable writer.

……

“The cable was a warning shot,” one U.S. official said. “They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.” The world would be paying attention soon enough—but by then, it would be too late.

……

“We were trying to warn that that lab was a serious danger,” one of the cable writers who had visited the lab told me. “I have to admit, I thought it would be maybe a SARS-like outbreak again. If I knew it would turn out to be the greatest pandemic in human history, I would have made a bigger stink about it.”

The cable was now public, and I hate to repeat this, but please note all the indirect information quoted above is what Rogin and others telling you what the cable says. He wouldn’t let the cable do its own talk, again.

On the Politico Magazine’s web page, there was a link to Rogin’s column, but not to the full cable.

A bit on the other cable, which Rogin didn’t obtain when writing the column: the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, after visiting WIV again, sent another cable back home three months later, in April 2018. You can access it on the State Department’s FOIA page.

Its Subject reads: China Virus Institute Welcomes More U.S. Cooperation on Global Health Security. (END)