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Jan. 7, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Israeli intel expert: Virus likely 'unnatural'

By Bill Gertz
Retired Israeli Lt. Col. Dany Shoham, who was among the first to suggest that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak may be linked to China’s military research, now believes there is a strong possibility that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

Col. Shoham stated in an article published last month that the initial theory that the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic occurred naturally is coming under strong doubt by both scientists and intelligence analysts.

The former senior intelligence analyst for the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry is a microbiologist and expert on chemical and biological warfare who has studied the matter.

According to Col. Shoham, the probability of human intervention in creating the coronavirus is higher than naturally occurring, spontaneous evolutionary adaptation. However, Chinese secrecy, deception and obfuscation about the virus origin are preventing spies and scientists from learning where the virus outbreak began.

“The genomic origin of the index virus (the strain that infected patient zero) has been determined to be a Chinese bat virus that underwent extensive pre-adaptation to humans, including continual transmissibility, prior to infecting patient zero,” Col. Shoham, now with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, an Israeli think tank, wrote in a journal article.

“The open question is how, where, and when such exceptional genomic pre-adaptation took place,” he stated.

The debate over the virus origin has the potential for explosive disclosures, he said, yet intelligence agencies around the world so far have remained largely silent.

“Several Western countries, as well as Russia, India, Japan, and Australia, had formed intelligence estimates as early as January 2020 but kept their conclusions quiet,” he stated. “The very persistence of intelligence agencies’ silence implies that they judge the initial contagion to have been unnatural. Had they concluded that the pandemic resulted from a natural contagion, they would probably have made that conclusion public.”

The CIA has not disclosed its findings about the virus origin but is said to be working on an assessment.

The former Israeli intelligence analyst’s comments followed similar remarks by White House Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger. Mr. Pottinger told an online meeting of British members of Parliament recently that the leading theory now is that the virus leaked from a Chinese laboratory.

A China expert who was one of the first American officials to warn about the danger of the pandemic last January, Mr. Pottinger said the most recent intelligence suggests the virus emanated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and not a wild animal “wet market” nearby that Chinese authorities initially blamed for the outbreak.

“There is a growing body of evidence that the lab is likely the most credible source of the virus,” the Daily Mail newspaper quoted Mr. Pottinger as saying during the meeting.

The virus likely escaped from a leak or accident, he said. “Even establishment figures in Beijing have openly dismissed the wet market story,” he said.

Col. Shoham, in his analysis, found “significant mismatches and errors” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the sole lab in China capable of conducting secure virus research, along with other institutions in Wuhan and other parts of China for a decade before the latest pandemic.

His list includes scientific papers with what he said were incoherent data or findings, unexplained gaps and contradiction, twisted chronologies, illegitimate secrecy, the elimination or distortions of records and databases and the obscuring and possible destruction of existing viruses.

Chinese authorities also pressured scientists and officials and made key people disappear from public view. They also have interchanged military and defense institutions with civilian institutions, he said.

“All this misconduct was allegedly meant to serve one principal purpose: to hamper the tracing of the roots of the index virus,” Col. Shoham said. “These deliberate obfuscations collectively form a powerful argument in support of the unnatural contagion concept.”

The World Health Organization is conducting an investigation into the virus origin and recently complained that China is blocking investigators.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week that several U.N. scientists who were promised entry into China have been told that they do not yet have government permission to enter the country.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday that her government and the WHO are still consulting about the scientists’ visit.

“On the issue of COVID-19 origin-tracing, China has always been open, transparent and responsible and taken the lead in carrying out scientific cooperation in tracing the origin with WHO with the purpose of promoting international research on origin-tracing,” she told reporters.

A senior U.S. official said intelligence agencies at the beginning of the pandemic lacked the expertise needed to study the virus origin. As a result, agencies had to rely heavily on U.S. scientists, many of whom were influenced to support Chinese government views as a result of work with Chinese counterparts.

Many American scientists are reluctant to consider the theory that the virus escaped from a laboratory over fears that doing so would upset relations with Chinese scientific institutions. Pro-China scientists have conducted research in China that allows greater leeway in scientific work with fewer safety and ethical regulations than U.S. institutions.

The leak of a Chinese database in September provides new clues to Beijing’s mass collection of data as part of a global surveillance program.

According to a recent report by the State Department-led Overseas Security Advisory Council, the leaked database was gathered by a Chinese “data scraping” company called Zhenhua Data that is used by China’s intelligence service for its operations.

The disclosure of the database by an Australian company revealed personally identifiable information on 2.4 million people, including 52,000 Americans.

“This is just the latest in a stream of evidence showing the Chinese Communist Party’s expansion and exportation of internal controls and surveillance,” the report said.

The data gathered by Zhenhua was mostly open-source information, although much was obtained from the dark web. Other information was obtained by hacking private companies, the report said.

“There are a wide variety of people covered in the database, including prime ministers, state and federal politicians, military officers, diplomats, academics, business executives, journalists and lawyers,” the report said.

“Zhenhua’s chief executive spoke of using data to wage ‘hybrid warfare’ through propaganda and psychological warfare on his personal WeChat,” the report noted. “China has long used surveillance as a powerful tool for control and collection both domestically and internationally.”

The collection of the data is part of China’s massive domestic surveillance network and a key intelligence-gathering technique for the Ministry of State Security, the civilian spy agency.

“While the MSS employs traditional case officers much like other international intelligence services, it also makes use of the worldwide network of Chinese communities,” the report warned.

“Relying on the loyalty (sometimes forced through pressure on family still in China) of professionals abroad, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been able to collect significant amounts of technological information.”

Starting the 1980s, China launched a similar intelligence program in the United States to bolster its nuclear program. “Fifteen years later, it had all the information needed to create its own nuclear program on par with that of the U.S.,” the report said.

“Essentially, the CCP now has nuclear weapons because of its successful collection of mass data through Chinese citizens abroad.”

During the 1990s, the Clinton administration launched a program of nuclear scientist exchanges with China. That resulted, according to a public conclusion by the CIA at the time, in China obtaining through espionage secrets relating to every deployed warhead in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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