As Trump, China trade barbs, a Fort Detrick laboratory finds itself in the middle
By HEATHER MONGILIO | The Frederick News-Post | Published: May 6, 2020
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FREDERICK, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Where the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first originated is a question on many minds, from officials in the United States and other countries to epidemiologists looking to track the virus that resulted in the current pandemic.
The question has led to China and the United States trading barbs. Ask President Donald Trump, and he’ll probably say SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in China where the first cases of COVID-19 appeared. He and other U.S. officials claim that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory, according to the Associated Press. World Health Organization emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan, quoted in the article, said the claim is speculative.
But ask Chinese officials and some Chinese scientists, their answer will hit closer to home.
For months now, even before Maryland and Frederick County announced its first cases of the respiratory disease, Chinese officials have suggested that the coronavirus was created at Fort Detrick.
The first conspiracy claim was that soldiers who trained near Fort Detrick brought the disease with them during the World Military Games in October. But that is not true, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s rumor control website.
In responding to questions about the claim, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said it is “completely ridiculous and it’s irresponsible” that someone from the Chinese government would make such a claim.
Esper and other administration officials “repeatedly denounced the Chinese government’s efforts to deflect responsibility for downplaying the threat early on, as well as its lack of transparency during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, as being irresponsible and unhelpful with combating the pandemic the world is facing today,” according to the site.
But now the conspiracy theorists and Chinese officials have turned their attention to another target: the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases on Fort Detrick.
The conspiracy specifically points to the shutdown of biosafety level 3 and 4 work at USAMRIID by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July 2019, suggesting that the laboratory was responsible for the virus.
“That is an absolutely false claim,” U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command spokeswoman Lori Salvatore wrote in an email to The News-Post. “USAMRIID does not take part in offensive research.”
USAMRIID is the Army’s biological defense laboratory, which studies high-level pathogens, like Ebola. Its mission is to protect U.S. soldiers serving both here and abroad.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted out a link to an article on Global Research, a Canadian website that often promotes conspiracies, including those against the United States. The link Zhao shared suggests that virus may have come from Fort Detrick. The Global Research link has since been deleted.
According to an article in Global Times, a Chinese media organization, others, such as Jin Canrong, an associate dean at Renmin University of China’s School of International Studies, have questioned the USAMRIID shutdown, the rise of e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) and an early flu season. An article published in the Chinese propaganda site People’s Daily lists 10 questions that the U.S. should answer, with the third question asking what happened at USAMRIID.
While some in the Frederick community expressed displeasure at the laboratory’s reopening, people did not flee.
Other conspiracies suggest that Frederick County has more cases because of the proximity to Fort Detrick. This is also not true. The rumors spread about USAMRIID and COVID-19 are not limited to Chinese media and officials. The Manila Times in the Philippines has also included multiple opinion pieces suggesting the virus was created by USAMRIID, as have other sites, including Reddit.
As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Frederick County had 1,114 cases of COVID-19. Prince George’s County has the largest number of cases in Maryland at 7,831. Montgomery County follows with 5,541 cases.
Frederick County’s first case of COVID-19 was announced March 16.
On July 15, the CDC sent USAMRIID a cease and desist letter and suspended its registration in the Federal Select Agent Program following a June inspection by the health agency.
At the time of the shutdown, USAMRIID researchers were working on the Ebola virus and the agents that cause tularemia, the Plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, the News-Post previously reported. No infectious pathogens were found outside of the authorized areas at USAMRIID, according to the News-Post article.
Inspection reports obtained by the News-Post found there were two breaches that led to the shutdown. What the two breaches resulted in was redacted. However, Col. E. Darrin Cox told the News-Post breach was a “loaded” word and said there was no exposure as a result of the breaches.
When those breaches were discovered, the former USAMRIID commander ordered a stop to high-level research. That voluntary halt came before the official cease and desist order from the CDC.
In addition to the breaches, there were five other departures from federal regulations found during the CDC inspection, according to the report. This included systematic failures to implement biosafety and containment procedures, such as someone propping open the door to the autoclave room while removing bio-waste.
“They weren’t doing it to openly flout the rules,” Cox previously told the News-Post. “They were doing it for a reason that they thought was reasonable. But I mean, it still was not in compliance with [standard operating procedures].”
One of the concerns was the effluent decontamination system USAMRIID had been using since its thermal decontamination system was damaged by flooding.
The laboratory has since addressed problems with its decontamination system and was allowed to return to full operations at the end of March, which included having its Federal Select Agent Program registration restored.
“USAMRIID retrained its laboratory personnel and established a new thermal decontamination system, which was inspected and approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November 2019,” Salvatore said in her email.
USAMRIID is currently working on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, including working on replication and purification of the virus for future testing. USAMRIID is also screening multiple small molecule therapeutics, which can help lead to a possible treatment, according to a Facebook post from USAMRDC.
The laboratory also received antibodies from someone with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS is caused by virus SARS-CoV, which is genetically similar to the virus that causes COVID-19. The antibodies will be studied to see how they can respond to SARS-CoV-2, according to USAMRDC’s post.
USAMRIID also was part of the early research on what is now remdesivir. The drug was originally targeted for Ebola but is now being tested as a possible treatment for COVID-19 patients.