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Harvard Medical Researcher Allegedly Attempted to Smuggle Cancer Research to China

Harvard Medical School's Gordon Hall sits across the HMS quadrangle.
Harvard Medical School's Gordon Hall sits across the HMS quadrangle. By Justin C. Wong
By Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writer

A federal judge charged a Harvard Medical School-affiliated researcher Monday with attempting to smuggle research from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at the behest of the Chinese government.

Zaosong Zheng, who is from China, received a Harvard-sponsored visa to study in the United States last year. In a Monday hearing, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge David H. Hennessy said evidence suggested Zheng tried to smuggle vials of specimens out of the country in a sock packed in his suitcase, according to the Boston Globe.

Zheng — who was arrested Dec. 10 — allegedly stole the materials from a lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he worked.

Zheng’s arrest comes shortly after the National Institutes of Health and the FBI have begun launching investigations into Chinese scientists and researchers who have purportedly stolen research from the United States for the Chinese government.

At Harvard, Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs announced at a November faculty meeting that the school had formed two new oversight committees in response to NIH inquiries into potential “academic espionage” by faculty members at American universities. One of the Harvard committees is tasked with reviewing sensitive research projects; the other is examining Faculty of Arts and Sciences policies to ensure the school complies with guidelines set forth by federal funding agencies.

During Monday’s hearing, Hennessy said Zheng was a flight risk, noting that his connections to the Chinese government, which gave him a scholarship, would facilitate his travel. The judge also granted federal prosecutors’ requests to detain Zheng until his Dec. 30 trial, according to the Globe.

In an affidavit, Kara D. Spice, an FBI agent, wrote that there was probable cause to believe Zheng made a series of “false, fictitious, and fraudulent” statements to Customs and Border Protection.

After CBP agents assigned to Boston Logan International Airport identified Zheng as a “high risk for possibly exporting undeclared biological material,” officers went to the bag room of Hainan Airlines, where they located two checked bags in his name.

“The checked bags were physically examined,” Spice wrote in the affidavit. “The examination resulted in the discovery of twenty one (21) vials wrapped in a plastic bag and concealed in a sock. The vials were visually inspected and appeared to contain a brown liquid with both typed and handwritten descriptions and notes.”

Spice wrote that, based on her experience, the vials “contained what appeared to be biological materials that were not properly declared or packaged.”

Zheng repeatedly denied carrying biological materials, according to the affidavit. Asked why he did not declare the vials, he initially told CBP officers that “they were not important and had nothing to do with his research.” As the interview continued, he said a friend gave him the vials.

Zheng eventually confessed to stealing eight vials from his former research lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Though Zheng stated that no one else was aware of the incident, he told authorities that he replicated 11 vials based on Zhang Tao’s research at Beth Israel over a period of two to three months, per the affidavit. Eventually, he told officers he planned to take the vials to his lab at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hospital and publish a paper in his name if the research was in any way successful, according to Spice.

The precise contents of the vials that CBP found in Zheng’s bag remain unknown, Spice wrote.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in an email to The Crimson that Zheng’s visa sponsorship began Sept. 4, 2018, but that the University offers visa sponsorship to faculty and researchers in the Harvard-affiliated hospitals who hold joint academic appointments with Harvard Medical School. Beth Israel, which is a Harvard teaching hospital, fired Zheng after his arrest at Boston Logan International Airport on a charge of making false statements.

Beth Israel spokesperson Jennifer Kritz wrote in an email that she is “deeply proud” of the hospital’s research programs.

“Any efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care,” Kritz wrote. “We are grateful for the diligence and professionalism of federal law enforcement in this case and are fully cooperating with the government’s investigation of this matter.”

The U.S. District Attorney's Office in Boston declined to comment on the case, citing their ongoing investigation into the matter. Brendan O. Kelley, who is serving as Zheng’s public defender, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Correction: Jan. 2, 2020

A previous version of this article stated that Zaosong Zheng was a Harvard Medical School student. In fact, he was a researcher at a Harvard-affiliated hospital.

—Staff Writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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