Questions about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic are being asked more insistently in Washington. President Biden has directed US intelligence agencies to tell him by the end of August whether the cause was an infected animal or a laboratory leak. He said he had “specific questions for China” and urged Chinese leaders “to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused China of “failure to meet its basic responsibilities in terms of sharing information and providing access.”
For more than a year, China resolutely ignored the pressure to allow neutral inspectors into its biological laboratory in the provincial capital of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected. Now it is adopting a different public posture. The new Chinese gambit might be called “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
At a recent press briefing in Beijing, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry called for “a thorough probe into the Fort Detrick lab to find the truth of coronavirus.” He was referring to a US military base an hour outside Washington where secrecy-shrouded research into germs, poisons, and plagues has been underway for generations.
“Why hasn’t the US invited the World Health Organization in for an investigation into Fort Detrick?” the spokesman asked. “Why can’t origins study be conducted in the US just as in China? The US should show transparency, tell as much as they know about all the questions, and respond to the concerns of the outside world.”
With that maneuver in narrative-changing, China shone a light on America’s little-known but uniquely important bio-fortress. Like the lab in Wuhan, the one at Fort Detrick (pronounced DEE-trick) is among 59 in the world where scientists handle the world’s deadliest pathogens. When the United States had a biowarfare program, it was based at Detrick. If it ever were to reconstitute such a program, Detrick would be the place, because its scientific staff probably represents the world’s greatest concentration of knowledge about plagues, germs, and poisons.
Fort Detrick is spread over 13,000 acres beside the bustling town of Frederick, Md. When I spent half a day there a few years ago, I found it both an eerie relic and an ultra-modern research institute. The rusting hulk of the One Million Liter Test Sphere, used during the 1950s to test toxic sprays on people and animals strapped into chambers inside, stands not far from sealed laboratory buildings where scientists work with potent bacteria.
During the Cold War, Fort Detrick was abuzz — literally — as scientists developed ingenious ways to infect mosquitoes with disease-causing germs and to weaponize fleas, ticks, ants, lice, and rats; cultivated spores that cause parasitic diseases in crops and livestock; and produced aerosolized toxins that could be used to kill either individuals or entire populations. CIA chemists also maintained a lab there, producing among other things lethal drops, powders, sprays, toothpaste, and cigars intended to assassinate foreign leaders. For 21 months in 1959-61, Quakers and other activists held dawn-to-dusk vigils outside, asserting that the base existed “to plan famine, starvation, and disease.”
In 1969 President Nixon ordered an end to all research into biowarfare — except for research “necessary to determine what defensive measures are required.” Later the United States, along with China, accepted a treaty banning all development of bioweapons “in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.” Part of Fort Detrick was turned into a cancer research institute. As the Chinese are clearly aware, though, it remains the epicenter of US military research into biological warfare.
Scientists at Fort Detrick, like those at Wuhan, study Ebola, Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, and other dread diseases. Labs there are supposed to be hermetically sealed, but there have been lapses. Anthrax spores leaked out in 2002, and an Army report later concluded that “multiple episodes of contamination may have occurred.” In 2019 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a halt to research at Fort Detrick’s highest-security lab because it did not have “sufficient systems in place to decontaminate wastewater.” The lab, officially known as the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, reopened a few months later. Its commander said he welcomed the reopening because the lab “has for more than 50 years now played a critical role in the nation’s defense, and we remain an important lab in that sense.”
Developing bioweapons is banned by treaty and US law but with a glaring loophole: “Defensive” research is permitted. In order to defend itself against possible bio-attack, each side manufactures and tests toxins that an enemy might use. These toxins, however, can also be seen as prototypes for weapons in a future battle fought with insects, vermin, and aerosolized germs.
How intensely are Chinese and American scientists working within that legal gray area — or beyond it? Neutral inspection of both countries’ bio-labs might help answer those questions. By bringing up Fort Detrick, Beijing is sending a clear message to Washington: Since you aren’t revealing your secrets, don’t expect us to reveal ours. That may keep the origin of COVID-19 an eternal mystery.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.