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Chinese vaccine maker Sinopharm under scanner for running biological warfare facility

Chinese vaccine maker Sinopharm’s lab is under the scanner for running a dual-use Biological Warfare facility for People’s Liberation Army

Amid concerns about the safety and efficacy of Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccine, the history of the company's lab in Wuhan has raised suspicions among biowarfare experts, the U.S. government, and the Taiwanese military over whether it continues to serve as a dual-use biological warfare (BW) facility for the People's Liberation Army (PLA), says a report published in the website Taiwan News.

The portal is reporting that in 1993 and again in 1995, China declared the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products (WIBP), the hub of Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccine development, to be one of eight dual-use BW research facilities under its "national defensive biological warfare R&D program." Although China has denied having an "offensive" biological warfare program since signing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), also known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), in 1984, the U.S. State Department in 2005 alleged that "China maintains some elements of an offensive [biological weapon] capability in violation of its BTWC obligations" and repeated the same charges in 2010, 2012, and 2014.

Eric Croddy, a researcher at the Monterey Institute for International Studies' Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-proliferation Program, authored a paper titled "China's Role in the Chemical and Biological Disarmament Regimes," which was printed in The Non-proliferation Review in the Spring of 2002. In the paper, Croddy listed the "Wuhan Biological Products Factory" in Wuhan's Wuchang District as an alleged government biological warfare research organization focused on "research and cultivation of various BW agents."

Israeli biological warfare analyst Dany Shoham in 2015 in the Journal of Defence Studies cited a "security specialist in Taipei in April 2001" who is mentioned in Croddy's work as claiming that a facility in Wuhan's Wuchang District cultivates biological warfare agents. Both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the WIBP are located in Wuchang District, and the article lists the WIBP as being affiliated with China's defence establishment.

The article stated that the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) oversees various defence research and development and industry facilities. A major body of this commission is the China National Biotech Corporation (CNBC), which has an R&D centre in Beijing and manufacturing sites associated with a system referred to as the "Institutes of Biological Products" that are located in various cities and include the WIBP.

Below the SASAC is the China National Biotech Group (CNBG), which Shoham said not only engages in vaccine production and research but also "designs, controls, and regulates" large-scale production facilities for its biological warfare program (BWP) for "both defensive and offensive purposes." Among other facilities, the author listed the WIBP as "possessing industrial production capacities" for biological warfare.

In addition, the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) is a subordinate agency of the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. A major facility operating under the SASTIND is the Biological Engineering and Design Institute, which has been mentioned in association with the WIBP.

According to company records, the WIBP in 2009 began moving its facilities from Wuhan's Wuchang District to its present location in Zhengdian Gold Industrial park in Wuhan's Jiangxia District, completed the move in 2016, and demolished all old structures by 2019. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) also moved its protection level-3 (P3) and P4 laboratories into the same complex while retaining its old site in Wuchang District.

At the start of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic in January of 2020, Shoham alleged that the WIBP is tied to China's defence establishment and is believed to be participating in the "Chinese Biological Weapons Convention program." The U.S. State Department in a 2019 compliance report again expressed concerns that China was violating the BWC through dual-use research: "Information indicates that the People’s Republic of China engaged during the reporting period in biological activities with potential dual-use applications, which raises concerns regarding its compliance with the BWC."

The COVID-19 vaccine China is currently offering developing countries, marketed as BBIBP-CorV, was developed by the WIBP as a subsidiary of China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm), which owns 95 percent, followed by China Guoxin Holdings Co. Ltd. at 5 percent. There is much concern about the safety of the vaccine, in part due to the 73 local and systemic adverse reactions listed in its manual.

The lab's vaccines are no stranger to controversy, with the WIBP producing a batch of 400,520 substandard doses of diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough vaccines for infants in 2018. That same year, authorities found evidence of forged data tied to the production of 113,000 rabies vaccines.

The WIBP has recently introduced remedial actions to deal with potential biosafety issues. In 2018, the WIBP posted a disposal service tender notice for the removal of 79.5 tons of hazardous waste, including 28 tons of "experimental [small] animal carcasses" and 25 tons of "substandard vaccine," with a service time ranging from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2019.

In January of 2019, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence (MND) proposed enhancing a biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) lab in New Taipei City in order to upgrade research on "defensive" chemical and biological weapons. The MND cited the upgrade of the WIV to BSL-4 status as a major impetus and warned that the lab's advances in biological warfare "may put Taiwan and other nations at risk."

MND officials stated that this plan will be used to respond to any biological threats emerging from China in the form of bioterrorism or natural epidemics. After the completion of this upgrade, the Taiwanese military believes it will be better able to detect and prevent the spread of biological warfare agents.

In an episode of "Face the Nation" that aired on Feb. 21, former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Mathew Pottinger said that American intelligence sources have strong reason to believe the "Chinese military was doing secret classified animal experiments in that same laboratory" as early as 2017. He added that there is "good reason to believe" an outbreak of a "flu-like illness" had occurred among the scientists in the WIV in the fall of 2019, just before the first cases of a new type of pneumonia were being reported in Wuhan.

A State Department fact sheet released on Jan. 15 pointed out that although the WIV bills itself as a "civilian institution," U.S. intelligence has determined that the lab has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. It went on to allege that the lab has undertaken "classified research, including laboratory animal experiments," on behalf of the PLA since 2017.

While gathering information for this report, Taiwan News collaborated with researchers who go under the pen names of Billy Bostickson and Rodolphe de Maistre, members of an international network of scientists investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic who call themselves DRASTIC (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19).