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Jan. 14, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Task force on virus origin deadlocked

By Bill Gertz
An interagency group of scientists and medical experts formed to study the origin of the coronavirus is deadlocked over how to report their conclusions in the waning days of the Trump administration.

According to people familiar with the dispute within the task force, 70% of the experts want to report publicly that the virus behind the pandemic leaked accidentally from the high-security medical research laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That conclusion is supported despite Chinese scientists’ refusal to cooperate in studying the genetic makeup of the virus and to explain where it comes from.

China‘s government also has issued disinformation, including spurious claims that the U.S. Army brought the virus to China.

The behind-the-scenes debate has been underway for three weeks and includes a number of outspoken anti-Trump scientists.

At issue is whether the U.S. government can formally designate China as the cause of the COVID-19 outbreak and hold Beijing accountable. China has launched a worldwide public relations campaign to deflect criticism for its handling and deception related to the pandemic.

The task force’s differences reflect the extreme politicization of the issue that many regard as an urgent national security priority that deserves bipartisan support.

Arguing against the lab escape conclusion is a group that insists the virus was a naturally occurring zoonotic event starting from a bat to an intermediate animal host and then to humans. An estimated 15% of the task force is arguing for this conclusion.

A third group, and one that has growing support from within the intelligence and arms control communities, wants the task force final report to assert that the virus, formally known as SARS-CoV-2, was produced by the Chinese military establishment as an engineered biological weapon. An estimated 7% of the task force agrees with this view.

That position was first disclosed by exiled Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan, who worked at a Chinese laboratory and said she is certain the coronavirus was created in a Chinese laboratory. Ms. Yan has published an extensive scientific study bolstering her claims.

The remaining 8% of the task force experts are undecided and want further data, something China has refused to provide.

According to the people, the task force includes a number of anti-Trump experts and scientific skeptics.

The deadlock within the group means that its findings are unlikely to be published before President Trump leaves office Jan. 20. That means the incoming Biden administration, expected to adopt more conciliatory policies toward China, will be reluctant to ultimately make public the task force’s conclusions.

The task force’s work was hampered by Chinese government stonewalling. Beijing officials have refused to cooperate in studying the virus’ origin and continues to insist the virus began at an “unregulated seafood market” in Wuhan — a location that over a year ago was sanitized and scrubbed clean of all possible evidence for where the disease outbreak began.

Chinese studies conducted after the outbreak said the virus was first detected in Wuhan in December 2019 have ruled out the seafood market as a cause. Chinese scientists that tried to report the anomalies in the seafood market origin have been suppressed by the government.

The Chinese government also has begun shifting blame for the outbreak from the market to questionable claims that the virus originated in southern Europe and spread to China by overseas workers.

The World Health Organization is conducting an inquiry into the central starting point for the virus. Beijing at first blocked entry to the inspection team, but the Chinese government announced this week that the team has been allowed into China and will go to Wuhan on Thursday.

Support for the lab-leak origin theory was first disclosed by Matt Pottinger, until recently the White House deputy national security adviser.

“There is a growing body of evidence that the lab is likely the most credible source of the virus,” he told British lawmakers recently.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services referred questions to the State Department.

A State Department official said: “State recently convened an outside panel of experts to discuss possible origins of the coronavirus. While we do not divulge the contents of private conversations, the discussion reinforced our view that China needs to be transparent and provide a full and thorough accounting of what transpired in Wuhan,“

One source said China is expected to continue the stonewalling on the virus origin with the hope that the new administration will give up the need for further investigation.

If the virus was a bioweapon, an outcome with a major national security implication, the federal government has not been able to determine that and could not identify the origin or the sponsor. As a result, the U.S. is vulnerable to a future biological weapons attack because it cannot develop the necessary infrastructure for the intelligence work needed to identify both the type and origin of the weapon, the sources said.

Work between Trump administration political appointees and the incoming Biden administration transition team successfully scuttled the planned visit to Taiwan by Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Ms. Craft was scheduled to travel to Taiwan on Thursday to give a speech, meet with Taiwan’s leaders, and hold a press conference in Taipei. The announcement of the visit triggered harsh Chinese state media denunciations and threats by one propaganda outlet to “strike back” against the United States before Jan. 20.

The visit was scuttled as a result of the need for both the outgoing and incoming administrations to coordinate work on selecting career State Department officials to serve as acting officials until the Biden administration can get its people in place.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Tuesday that as a result of work with transition officials in identifying State Department career officials who will assume acting positions, “we are cancelling all planned travel this week.”

With a large bureaucracy, selecting acting officials for bureaus and directorates requires agreement from both Biden and Trump officials and is expected to take time with less than a week before the next administration takes power.

That announcement coincided with a visit to the State Department on Tuesday by Antony J. Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden‘s choice for secretary of state.

People familiar with the State Department transition said the need to discuss transition personnel moves provided cover for canceling the visit by Ms. Craft, which was opposed by the Biden team.

Ned Price, a transition team spokesman, said the transition was in no way behind the State Department’s decision to cancel travel. Mr. Pompeo himself called off what would have been a final trip to Europe this week.

China‘s government over the past three years has stepped up arbitrary detentions amid increased tensions between Washington and Beijing, according to a report by a State Department-led security group.

“The extradition of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and corresponding detentions of foreigners in China brought the issue to the forefront of the private sector’s concerns regarding travel to China,” states a report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council.

The late December report said the case against Ms. Meng could increase the risk for U.S. businesses operating in China as a result of “hostage diplomacy” by Beijing. Ms. Meng was detained by Canadian officials more than two years ago for a U.S. warrant dealing with Huawei’s suspected trading with Iran.

“In December 2018, within days of Meng’s arrest and after an outcry from Chinese officials, the Chinese government detained two Canadian citizens as bargaining chips,” the report said. “The two Canadian citizens did not violate any Chinese laws and had been living and working in China for some time.”

Over the next two years, China continued its hostage diplomacy by detaining and taking questionable legal action against Canadian citizens as part of a campaign to pressure the Ottawa government into releasing Ms. Meng.

The main hostages, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, dubbed “the two Michaels” by human rights activists, remain in custody.

The two were charged with espionage in June.

Another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, was convicted of drug trafficking in China, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mr. Schellenberg denied the charges but, after Ms. Meng’s arrest, the Chinese government announced the sentence was too light and ordered him put to death in what the report said was “widely seen as retribution against the Canadian government.”

“China has a significant history of detaining individuals without any charges,” the report said.

A travel advisory has been in effect since January 2019 that called for “increased caution for U.S. travelers in China due to arbitrary detainments and the use of exit bans to effectively ‘kidnap’ U.S. citizens for a variety of reasons, including political leverage,” the report said.

China also changed its legal system to make it easier to detain people indefinitely.

“The system essentially legalizes shuanggui, a long-held Communist Party practice wherein authorities held detainees with no legal counsel or fair trial, often torturing them, and sometimes resulting in their death while in detention,” the report said.

An OSAC survey of American companies found that fears of Chinese government hostage-taking have increased sharply in recent years, but that many companies are continuing to send employees to China despite the risk.

“U.S. citizens may face long-term detention in China for a variety of reasons, including the possession of drugs; criticizing the government in public or in private (including texting and social media); participating in religious or political activities; relations or association with someone the Chinese government wants to arrest; or involvement in a business dispute,” the report said.

“Additionally, Chinese authorities have detained foreigners purely for geopolitical leverage unrelated to the above charges.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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