According to the MOU Galveston National Laboratory, a US National Lab and Wuhan Lab have signed a partnership which allows both labs to destroy secret files in their possession.
According to a legal document, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) has the authority to order a collaborating U.S. lab to delete all data generated from their collaborative work.
The Wuhan lab and the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) of collaboration that requires each of the two labs to destroy “secret files” or materials at the request of the other.
According to the MOU acquired through a freedom of information request by U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on public health “the party is entitled to ask the other to destroy and/or return the secret files, materials, and equipment without any backups.”
The MOU aimed to promote collaboration in research and training between the two labs. It was signed in 2017 and will remain in effect until October of current year. The confidentiality provisions, however, will be applicable long after the pact’s five-year period has expired, according to the deal.
The letter goes on to explain what items are to be classified as “confidential,” possibly allowing any collaboration’s documents and data to be subject to a deletion request.
“All cooperation and exchange documents, details and materials shall be treated as confidential info by the parties,” the MOU states.
The WIV has been at the centre of the debate as there has been rising belief that the virus that causes COVID-19, which has killed millions over the world, may have escaped from the facility. The lab has disputed the charges, but Beijing has denied international investigators access to the facility’s data and records, effectively prohibiting any real investigation into the notion.
According to a joint release in the journal Science, WIV and the Galveston National Laboratory formally established their relationship the following year to “streamline future scientific and operational collaborations on dangerous pathogens.”
The MOU conditions about data destruction, according to experts, raise red flags and may represent a legal violation.
Reuben Guttman, a partner at Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC who focuses on safeguarding the integrity of government programmes, told Right to Know, “The clause is quite frankly explosive.” “Anytime I see a public entity, I would be very concerned about destroying records.”
“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 added. “There has to be a whole protocol.”
The lab was “built by the National Institutes of Health to help combat global health threats,” according to Christopher Smith, a spokesperson for the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB).
“As a government-funded entity, UTMB is required to comply with applicable public information law obligations, including the preservation of all documentation of its research and findings.”
The Galveston National Laboratory is one of only two government funded high-level biosecurity facilities in the United States. In 2013, it began partnering with the WIV, which includes educating WIV scientists and conducting cooperative research activities. James Le Duc, the former director of the Galveston lab who resigned last year, visited WIV several times over the years.
Nearly three weeks after Le Duc pushed his Chinese counterparts to disclose the material, the Galveston lab was among the first in the world to get samples of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The discoveries in the 2017 MOU appear to contradict WIV scientists’ promises that vital research data would never be scrubbed.
Shi Zhengli, the director of the WIV’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, called the allegations that her facility would remove such data “baseless and appalling.”
In a February interview with MIT Technology Review, she remarked, “Even if we gave them all the records, they would still say we have hidden something or we have destroyed the evidence.”
The facility took its main database of viral samples offline in September 2019, months before some of its researchers allegedly became ill with COVID-like symptoms.
Since the epidemic broke out in Wuhan, the lab’s safety standards have also been questioned. Footage from 2017 shows several researchers at the facility feeding a bat while wearing only surgical gloves, and at least one researcher collecting bat samples while wearing only standard glasses and a surgical mask.
The Department of Education initiated an investigation into Galveston National Laboratory’s ties to the Wuhan lab in April 2020.
Le Duc had asked Shi to evaluate a draft briefing he had produced for the university and congressional personnel investigating the matter earlier that month.
“Please review carefully and make any changes that you would like,” h e wrote to Shi in an email acquired by Right to Know, “I want this to be as accurate as possible and I certainly do not want to misrepresent any of your valuable contributions.” Shi had refused to speak with Le Duc on the phone the day before “[d]ue to the complicated situation,” but insisted that the virus “is not a leaky [sic] from our lab or any other labs.”
“The information Dr. Le Duc wanted Dr. Shi to review was a description of her research on coronaviruses as he understood it,” Smith, UTMB’s director of media relations, told the investigative group.
Nonetheless, in correspondence with others, Le Duc stated that a lab accident was a likely source of the epidemic.
According to another email received by the group, he said on April 10, 2020, “It is certainly possible that a lab accident was the source of the epidemic, and I also agree that we can’t trust the Chinese government.”