According to The Australian, Zhou worked at the Beijing Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology. The PLA-controlled Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences oversaw the institute. He graduated from the academy in 1998, garnering first prize for the PLA's scientific and technical progress award. Zhou subsequently worked under PLA Senior Colonel Wuchun Cao – who also sits on the board of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Aside from his work with the PLA, the report said Zhou also "worked closely" with WIV scientists. The researchers he collaborated with at the WIV included Dr. Shi Zhengli – dubbed the "bat woman" due to her research on bat coronaviruses. Both Zhou and Shi focused on "new infectious disease pathogens" and immunology as their fields of research.
Outside of China, the PLA scientist also had ties to American educational institutions. Zhou did his post-doctoral research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He also closely worked with the New York Blood Center – as evidenced by a study published in February 2020. Zhou joined 12 other researchers – including some from the center – in examining the pathogens responsible for the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Their study found that the MERS and SARS coronaviruses could be used as avenues for antibody-based antiviral drug therapy. The 13 authors also remarked that the "novel molecular mechanism for antibody-enhanced viral entry" they worked on could "guide future vaccination and antiviral strategies."
Zhou's patent filing for the vaccine also reflected this earlier study. The application stated: "The invention relates to the field of biomedicine, and relates to a COVID-19 vaccine, preparation methods and applications." The patent also added that the vaccine's fusion protein can be utilized to create other medical treatments for the disease.
A New York Post report touched on the mysterious demise of Zhou. According to the paper, the award-winning PLA scientist died in May 2020. However, there were no reports or tributes about Zhou published in Chinese media outlets. His death was only mentioned in passing – listing him as "deceased" – in a July 2020 media report and a December 2020 scientific paper.
Nevertheless, the close working relationship between Zhou and Shi only supported claims of the WIV conducting "secret military activity." Declassified U.S. intelligence released in January 2021 attested to this allegation, The Australian noted.
It said: "Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the U.S. has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China's military." The intelligence also noted: "The U.S. and other donors who funded or collaborated on civilian research at the WIV have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects."
The COVID-19 laboratory leak theory first gained ground during the Trump administration, but was dismissed by scientists and mainstream media. Negative sentiment against former President Donald Trump contributed to the lab leak possibility being branded as a "conspiracy theory." Meanwhile, China insisted early on that the virus did not escape the Wuhan facility. It instead pointed to the city's Huanan Seafood Market as the possible site of the animal-to-human transmission.
But sentiment toward the lab leak theory appeared to be doing a complete 180-degree turn. Many leading scientists worldwide have pushed for a further probe of the WIV. Even incumbent President Joe Biden called for a re-investigation of the Wuhan laboratory despite closing an earlier probe led by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Biden said in a May 26 statement that he has asked the intelligence community to "redouble [its] efforts and analyze information … [toward] a definitive conclusion" on the origins of COVID-19.
Speaking to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said the current administration's response was "better late than never, but far from adequate." He continued that the U.S. intelligence community has been looking at the lab leak theory for more than a year. "They've done good work on it, but in the end – the answer lies in the hands of [the Chinese government,] not people working for American intelligence agencies," Cotton said.
The lawmaker also pointed out that Beijing officials have not been transparent on the COVID-19 pandemic's origins. He told the paper: "We should be insisting that they come clean … [and] provide us a clear and unvarnished look at what was happening in the Wuhan labs."
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