Former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said he has “high confidence” in an assessment published by the State Department in January linking the controversial Wuhan Institute of Virology to the Chinese military.
Mr. Pompeo, a former CIA director, was among the first government officials to press the case last year that the COVID-19 pandemic could have sprung from an accident or viral escape from the Wuhan laboratory rather than naturally from an animal host.
“I was in a position where we could see the accumulating evidence,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times. “Every piece of evidence that we turned over, every rock that we pulled up suggested that this virology lab had all the hallmarks of a place where this could have leaked.”
Then, U.S. government officials began seeing what Mr. Pompeo called “real tactical clues” that the virus came from a lab leak. The clues included doctors at the institute who reportedly contracted COVID-like symptoms in the fall of 2019 and secret military work being done inside the laboratory by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“We started to see other significant circumstantial evidence suggesting this was the place,” Mr. Pompeo said.
At the same time, the likelihood the virus behind COVID-19 emanated from a Wuhan wild animal market, as the Chinese government initially asserted, became more implausible.
“The combination of those two things, taking place as we were just racking and stacking evidence, caused me by the spring of last year to conclude that it was pretty likely that it came from [the lab],” said Mr. Pompeo.
“It’s not close in terms of which is more credible. The lab leak is significantly more credible than the zoonotic transmission theory at this point.”
Mr. Pompeo said information about ties between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the PLA is strong.
“To describe it in terms the intelligence community would use, I have ‘high confidence’ in that assessment,” Mr. Pompeo said, noting it would not have been made public if officials held doubts.
Reaching that conclusion “took us a while,” he noted. “We wanted to have high confidence before we made that statement because it’s a big deal and it’s important, and we didn’t want to have it wrong,” Mr. Pompeo said.
The secret military work at the institute was one of the more significant disclosures made in January in a State Department fact sheet on the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Chinese officials have denied conducting any research for the PLA at the Wuhan site.
The fact sheet, however, detailed what it said was “secret military activity” at the institute, prompting concerns Beijing is engaged in covert biological warfare work banned under the Biological Weapons Convention, which China signed.
“Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military,” the fact sheet stated. “The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
Mr. Pompeo said another factor suggesting a military role at the Wuhan institute is the Chinese security system.
“There are very few things that happen inside of China that aren’t connected to their security apparatus …,” he said. “Even if technically demarked as civilian work, you can be sure that the security apparatus minders were deeply aware of the things that were taking place [at the Wuhan Institute of Virology] because they would be in each one of the labs inside of China today.”
Lab director speaks
Mr. Pompeo said Beijing should be expelled from the World Health Organization if it fails to take part in a second, more thorough and independent probe of the origins of COVID-19.
“If you’re part of a set of rules — international health regulations the WHO has — and you are called upon to comply with those rules and you do not, there has to be a cost imposed by that institution itself,” he said.
Failing to take part in the so-called phase 2 virus origin investigation should result in China being blocked from the benefits of being part of the health group until Beijing agrees to cooperate.
China announced last month it would not take part in any further investigation by the WHO on the virus origin inside China and has consistently denied the virus could have originated from the Wuhan lab.
Shi Zhengli, the lead Chinese virologist who studied bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, insisted again Monday in an interview with The New York Times that there is no evidence for the lab leak theory, and denied she or her staff were covering up information and records.
“How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?” she said.
The newspaper did not ask the scientist, who has been dubbed “Bat Woman of Wuhan” for his virus work, about the laboratory’s connection to the PLA.
The laboratory has refused to provide WHO investigators with records of its work or virus samples.
Saying U.S. intelligence agencies are divided on the plausibility of the lab-leak theory, President Biden ordered a three-month review of the evidence to get a clearer picture. Mr. Pompeo also said it was unusual for Mr. Biden to set a time limit on such a momentous question.
“It’s an odd thing to say a 90-day review, from my perspective,” he said. “This is ongoing work. The collection of intelligence isn’t something you say, ‘Let’s go do this for 90 days.’”
Intelligence gathering on the origin of the virus should be nonstop, and Mr. Pompeo urged those conducting the review to “keep working, keep digging.”
“Make sure you’re doing everything you can and be straight up. Get the science right. If it turns out it’s not the virology lab, the world needs to know that too,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo did not answer directly when asked if U.S. spy agencies failed regarding the pandemic.
“These are complicated things. You have a great power adversary devoting enormous resources to deny that information,” he said. “I think we ultimately got to a good place where we have a broad base for an understanding of what took place.”
Mr. Pompeo urged the U.S. government to make sure China is held accountable for any failures in the handling of the disease outbreak that has now killed 600,000 Americans and more than 3.5 million people worldwide.
In addition to ousting China from the WHO, he recommended the U.S. government impose sanctions on senior Chinese Communist Party officials linked to any cover-up of the outbreak.
Financial assets linked to China’s global infrastructure program called the Belt and Road Initiative also could be frozen. “There should be a cost imposed for what they did wrong,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo said an even more important action should be for the international community to demand that the Wuhan Institute of Virology be shut down.
“That lab’s still open. That lab is still operating with the same crappy biosafety level that it had before this pandemic,” he said, adding he is convinced the lab is still conducting dangerous viral research.
“If they are doing gain-of-function research, the next time it could be more lethal, more contagious,” he said. “This risk to the world remains, and we have to impose real costs on the Chinese leadership to convince them that they’ve got to change the way they’re creating risk to the world.”
Ms. Shi, the institute’s virologist, had published scientific papers mentioning gain-of-function work that involves making viruses more dangerous to humans through laboratory manipulation.
China should be forced to pay a “cost recovery” fine to make up for the trillions of dollars in wealth lost and millions who died from the pandemic, Mr. Pompeo said.
“The Chinese Communist Party has to be held accountable for that,” he said, arguing that Chinese leaders continue to cover up what took place and thus increase the danger of new pandemics.
Mr. Pompeo said Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken in the past about poor bio-laboratory safety and thus should be among Chinese officials facing sanctions.
Mr. Xi “should absolutely be held responsible not only for the failure of the biosecurity safety levels in these laboratories but the cover-up. That is a political matter,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo also disputed recent claims made by Christopher Ford, a former assistant secretary of state who resigned in protest following the January 6 Capitol assault. Mr. Ford alleged in a blog post that Miles Yu, Mr. Pompeo’s China policymaker, orchestrated a rogue operation to investigate the origin of the coronavirus at the State Department.
The virus origin probe was led by the State Department’s arms control compliance directorate, and Mr. Ford asserted that he had been deliberately excluded from the directorate’s investigation by Mr. Yu.
“I know rogue operations at the State Department,” Mr. Pompeo said. “I tried to stop a whole bunch of them. These were folks that were working against the things that the Trump administration was trying to do.”
The arms compliance bureau’s probe “was not one of those,” he said.
“This was something that I was very keenly interested in. I wanted to make sure we got the science right. That we rejected information that didn’t make sense,” he noted.
“It was something that I supported. I repeatedly told the team, ‘Go do this well. Take the time that you need. We want to get it fast, but we want to get it right more importantly.’”
The investigation involved a team of officials from several bureaus. It included Mr. Yu and David Asher, a contractor and a group of scientists with varied views on the origins of the virus.
“The team knew that I was supporting their efforts to come to understand how this took place and to make sure we evaluated as best we could the information that we were able to obtain on the connection to the Chinese Communist Party’s bioweapons program, to see if there was in fact a connection there and learn as much as we could about that as well,” Mr. Pompeo said.
The Biden administration scuttled the probe after taking office in January.
Mr. Pompeo said he hopes the department will continue to investigate the origin of the virus.
“This should be about science, not politics. We’ve got to figure this out,” he said.