The Department of Education is probing the University of Texas System’s dealings with an infectious diseases laboratory in Wuhan, China.
The Wuhan lab is a suspected source of the coronavirus that has infected millions of people and killed hundreds of thousands. The virus has also prompted large-scale shutdowns of the world’s economy and initiated a global recession.
Federal investigators have requested the UT System hand over all documents related to contracts with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and researcher Shi Zhengli, who specializes in bats, according to The Wall Street Journal. The investigation is part of a broader effort to examine UT’s potential links to Beijing and about two-dozen Chinese state-owned companies, as well as with Zoom Communications’ CEO Eric Yuan.
UT is working on a reply to the Education Department’s request. Yuan has denied ever working personally with UT.
A growing body of evidence suggests that the coronavirus pandemic began in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. President Trump said Thursday that he has seen evidence that gives him a “high degree of confidence” that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab.
U.S. intelligence officials have been less forthright about what evidence may or may not suggest about the origins of the virus. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to point to a specific source of the pathogen in a statement Thursday, but the office did confirm that it was looking into the Wuhan lab as a potential source.
“As we do in all crises, the [Intelligence] Community’s experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to U.S. national security,” the ODNI said. “The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
The federal government’s investigation into UT Systems is part of a wider probe to see how deep foreign influence has crept into the U.S. university system. Universities have disclosed more than $6.5 billion in funding from foreign entities, some of which has come from countries, such as China, that are hostile to the United States’ goals.
China has campaigned aggressively to expand its global influence in recent decades. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, a plan to construct a massive network of infrastructure spreading out from China across Asia and into Europe. The project would imbed China at the center of much of the global economy and give Beijing more leverage to influence international agreements, norms, and institutions, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sen. Tom Cotton, who may be the U.S. politician most hawkish on China, has suggested that Chinese failures to contain the virus in the early days of the outbreak stemmed from a deliberate calculation by Beijing that saving the rest of the world from the virus would lessen China’s relative global standing.
“I believe that was a deliberate and conscious choice by the Chinese communist leadership, because they didn’t want to see their relative power and standing in the world decline because this virus was contained within China,” Cotton said in an April interview with Fox News, referring to Chinese attempts to hide the real impact of the virus in January and allowing millions of people to leave Wuhan.