CubaBrief: Lab leak most likely cause of Covid-19. Havana’s role in helping to develop China’s biotech industry

The origins of COVID-19 are back in the news with The Wall Street Journal obtaining a United States Department of Energy classified report revealing that it  “was probably the result of a leak from a laboratory.”

What does Cuba have to do with this? A lot, but this necessitates a short history lesson.

On September 28, 1960, the Cuban government recognized the People’s Republic of China diplomatically. Relations between China and Cuba cooled in 1964 when the Castro regime sided with the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet split.Over the next 25 years Havana remained in the Soviet orbit, and drew benefits denied Beijing. This included Moscow assisting the Castro regime developing a biotech industry that could also be used for biological warfare.

NBC 6‘s Ike Seaman in a October 10, 2001 article “Cuba’s Biological Weapon Industry” reported that “With help from the Soviet Union’s massive secret biological weapons program, Castro was able to build one of the world’s most sophisticated biotechnology industries which can also be used to build weapons of mass destruction.”  Dr. Ken Alibek,  former Soviet scientist and author of the book, Biohazard said helped train Cubans in biotechnology, and that he regretted it, saying: “This work would be used for developing biological weapons or biological agents. As a result of this, we helped Castro develop biological weapons. It was such a stupid decision to just do this.”

Havana distanced itself from the Soviet Union in the mid to late 1980s, viewing Perestroika and Glasnost as existential threats to its rule.

At the same time, relations warmed again with Communist China, especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The Castro regime was one of the few governments to back Beijing’s bloody crackdown.

Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union, mentioned above, provided Havana with expertise in biological warfare and biotechnology that the Chinese had been denied due to the previously mentioned split. Beginning in the late 1980s, the Castro regime began offering that knowledge to their counterparts in Beijing, and in 2002, they signed a  formal agreement to produce monoclonal antibodies. By 2004 Cuba had joint ventures in China that included both biotech, and genetic engineering. Douglass Starr in Wired Magazine on December 1, 2004 reported on this phenomenon in the article “ The Cuban Biotech Revolution“.

What Cubans call “the Special Period” produced one notable success: pharmaceuticals. In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Cuba got so good at making knockoff drugs that a thriving industry took hold. Today the country is the largest medicine exporter in Latin America and has more than 50 nations on its client list. Cuban meds cost far less than their first-world counterparts, and Fidel Castro’s government has helped China, Malaysia, India, and Iran set up their own factories: “south-to-south technology transfer.”

In 2015, then vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel visited Beijing and praised Havana’s collaboration with Communist China in the sphere of biotechnology. Granma, Cuba’s official national communist newspaper reported on the Cuban vice=presidents visit to a biotech facility in China.

“Díaz-Canel emphasized the notable progress made by Cuba and China in the sphere of biotechnology over recent years while also highlighting the close collaboration that the two countries share in the sector; providing great benefits and knowledge for both peoples.” 

Without Havana’s joint ventures over the past 20 years in Cuba, Beijing may not have been in a position to have the capability to run a biotech / genetic engineering lab like the one in Wuhan that has appeared to cause so much tragedy over the past three years.

Al Jazeera, February 27, 2023

News|Coronavirus pandemic

US energy dept says COVID probably leaked from Wuhan lab

Investigations into the origins of a virus that has now killed nearly 7 million people have been hampered by politics and a lack of access and transparency.

The COVID-19 virus first emerged in Wuhan, China, as a ‘mysterious’ pneumonia before spreading around the world [File: China Daily]

COVID-19 was probably the result of a leak from a laboratory, according to a newly updated classified report from the United States Department of Energy obtained by the Wall Street Journal newspaper.

The new coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2 — first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and quickly spread around the world, so far killing nearly 7 million people. It also created turmoil in the global economy as countries closed borders and ordered lockdowns to try and curb the spread of a virus against which there were, initially, no effective vaccines.

The judgement for the latest classified report arose out of new intelligence and was made with “low confidence”, the Journal reported on Sunday. The energy department oversees a network of US laboratories, including some that undertake advanced biological research.

The latest findings suggest a change in the view of the US energy department, which said previously it was undecided on how the virus emerged. The officials declined to elaborate on the intelligence that had prompted the department to change its position. It now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in saying the virus probably spread after a mishap at a laboratory, a conclusion the FBI reached in 2021 with “moderate confidence”.

Four US intelligence agencies believe with “low confidence” that COVID-19 took place through natural transmission, while two others remain undecided, the Journal added.

Despite the agencies’ differing analyses, the update reaffirmed an existing consensus that COVID-19 was not the result of a Chinese biological weapons programme, the people who had read the classified report told the newspaper.

The report, extending to five pages, was prepared for the White House and members of Congress, the Journal said.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said there were still a “variety of views” on the issue.

Speaking on CNN on Sunday, he stressed US President Joe Biden had repeatedly asked the intelligence community to invest in trying to find out as much as possible about how the pandemic started.

“President Biden specifically requested that the national labs, which are part of the Energy Department, be brought into this assessment because he wants to put every tool at use to be able to figure out what happened here,” Sullivan said.

In mid-February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) promised to do everything possible “until we get the answer” on the origins of the virus, denying a report that suggested the agency had abandoned its investigation.

After much delay, a WHO team travelled to Wuhan, China, in early 2021 to visit the Huanan market where the first cluster of cases emerged and which was closed and cleaned soon after the virus began to spread. Working alongside Chinese scientists, they also visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a biosecurity lab where researchers had been working on bats.

The investigation faced criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not sufficiently evaluating the lab-leak theory, which it deemed “extremely unlikely”. It said the most likely explanation was that the virus originated in a bat before crossing to an intermediary animal and making the jump to humans.

China has accused the US of politicising the investigation and for ‘scapegoating’ the country after former US President Donald Trump dubbed SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, the “Chinese virus”.

Finding the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is seen as crucial in order to better fight or even prevent another pandemic.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has insisted that all hypotheses remain on the table and called on China to provide further access to investigate.

Source: Al Jazeera

From the archives

Granma, September 7, 2015

Díaz-Canel praises biotechnological collaboration with China

The Cuban Vice President emphasized the notable progress made by Cuba and China in the sphere of biotechnology over recent years, while also highlighting the close collaboration the two countries share in the sector

Author: Prensa Latina(PL) |

September 7, 2015 10:09:22

Beijing.— Cuba’s First Vice President of the Councils of State and Ministers Miguel Díaz-Canel highlighted progress made in the sphere of biotechnology through exchanges with China, an important pillar in relations between both countries, reported PL.

During a visit to the mixed entity Biotech on September 4, just hours before departing the country, the vice president was received by institution directors and personnel from both nations. Biotech has been functioning for over 10 years and has a staff of over 300, including 14 Cuban experts.

Díaz-Canel emphasized the notable progress made by Cuba and China in the sphere of biotechnology over recent years while also highlighting the close collaboration that the two countries share in the sector; providing great benefits and knowledge for both peoples. 

He noted that this coming September, the Cuban branch located in the Mariel Special Development Zone west of Havana, dedicated to the development, production and sale of monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer, will celebrate its 15 anniversary.

The Cuban official noted that cooperation in the sector received a boost with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the island, during which important agreements to benefit the health of both populations were signed.

According to Díaz-Canel, Cuba and China enjoy high levels of cooperation in all spheres, but biotechnology which has a positive impact on citizens from Cuba, China and around the world.

Cuba’s First Vice President arrived in the capital on September 2, to participate in commemorations for the 70th Anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People and the end of WWII.

, October 10, 2001

Ike Seaman’s Report: Cuba’s Biological Weapon Industry

MSNBC, October 10, 2001.

MIAMI, October 10 – The sudden, sharp focus on the potential for bioterrorism to be directed at the U.S. must now include a wary eye cast toward Cuba.

That’s the conclusion from a wide range of experts who say Cuba’s broken economy is forcing it to sell biotechnology.

Cuba has just sold many of its biotechnology secrets to Iran, secrets that can be used to build biochemical weapons. Both countries are on the State Department’s list of terrorist nations capable of doing that.

While experts say Cuba poses no immediate threat to the United States, there is concern about Iran and this new, potentially dangerous relationship forged by Fidel Castro.

With help from the Soviet Union’s massive secret biological weapons program, Castro was able to build one of the world’s most sophisticated biotechnology industries which can also be used to build weapons of mass destruction.

In his book, Biohazard, former Soviet scientist Ken Alibeck says he helped to train Cubans in this technology. It is something he now regrets.

Dr. Ken Alibek: “This work would be used for developing biological weapons or biological agents. As a result of this, we helped Castro develop biological weapons. It was such a stupid decision to just do this.”

Gen. Charles Wilhelm, a former Southcom Commander says: “The indications we have is that they have the capability to produce those type of substances.”

In 1995, the U.S. Senate released a report saying Cuba was one of just 17 countries believed to have biological weapons. Last year, in this classified report, Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned of “Cuba’s potential to develop and produce biological agents” that can kill.

In the Angolan Civil War, Cuban soldiers used a deadly biological weapon it developed called “yellow rain” to kill rebels opposed to the Marxist government.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who investigates terrorist threats, said in a 1996 report, “Cuba has been a supply source [to terrorist groups] for toxin and chemical weapons.”

Now Castro has sold this technology to Iran. Back in May, he said that together they can “bring the United States to its knees.”

A report by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban studies warns: “…Cuba’s closeness with…militant terrorist groups in the Middle East is troublesome.”

The study was written by Diego Amuchastegui, who was involved with Cuba’s Middle East policy before he defected.

Amuchastegui says: “He wants to expand his relations in the Middle East.”

Castro has consistently condemned the September 11th suicide attacks. However, he is also condemning the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, calling it a cure worse than the disease.

Excerpts from BIOHAZARD: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World by Ken Alibek (1)(Random House, 2000).

Pages 273-277 When Yuri Ovchinnikov died in 1987, I joined a group of Biopreparat scientists at his funeral services in Moscow. The conversation eventually turned to Cuba’s surprising achievements in genetic engineering. Someone mentioned that Cuban scientists had successfully altered strains of bacteria at a pharmaceutical facility just outside of Havana.‘‘Where did such a poor country get all of that knowledge and equipment?’’ I asked.‘‘From us, of course,’’ he answered with a smile. As I listened in astonishment, he told me that Castro had been taken during a visit to the Soviet Union in February 1981 to a laboratory where E. coli bacteria had been genetically altered to produce interferon, then thought a key to curing cancer and other diseases.

Castro spoke so enthusiastically to Brezhnev about what he had seen that the Soviet leader magnanimously offered his help. A strain of E. coli containing the plasmid used to produce interferon was sent to Havana, along with equipment and working procedures. Within a few years, Cuba had one of the most sophisticated genetic engineering labs in the world—capable of the kind of advanced weapons research we were doing in our own. General Lebedinsky visited Cuba the following year, at Castro’s invitation, with a team of military scientists. He was set up in a ten room beach-front cottage near Havana and boasted of being received like a king. An epidemic of dengue fever had broken out a few months earlier, infecting 350,000 people. Castro was convinced that this was the result of an American biological attack. He asked Lebedinsky and his scientists to study the strain of the dengue virus in special labs set up near the cottage compound.

All evidence pointed to a natural outbreak—the strain was Cuban, not American—but Castro was less interested in scientific process than in political expediency.. . . Cuba has accused the United States twelve times since 1962 of staging biological attacks on Cuban soil with anti-livestock and anti-crop agents . . .Kalinin was invited to Cuba in 1990 to discuss the creation of a new biotechnology plant ostensibly devoted to single-cell protein. He returned convinced that Cuba had an active biological weapons program.The situation in Cuba illustrates the slippery interrelation between Soviet support of scientific programs among our allies and their ability to develop biological weapons.. . . For many years, the Soviet Union organized courses in genetic engineering and molecular biology for scientists from Eastern Europe, Cuba, Libya, India, Iran and Iraq among others. Some forty foreign scientists were trained annually.

Many of them now head biotechnology programs in their own countries. Some have recruited the services of their former classmates.In July 1995, Russia opened negotiations with Iraq for the sale of large industrial fermentation vessels and related equipment. The model was one we had used to develop and manufacture bacterial biological weapons. Like Cuba, the Iraqis maintained the vessels were intended to grow single-cell protein for cattle feed . . .A report submitted by the U.S. Office of Technological Assessment to hearings at the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in late 1995 identified seven-teen counties believed to possess biological weapons ‘‘Libya, North Korea, South Korea, Iraq, Taiwan, Syria, Israel, Iran, China, Egypt, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Bulgaria, India, South Africa and Russia.’’