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May 7, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

Milley on virus origin
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week provided further details on efforts by the U.S. intelligence community to uncover the origin of the coronavirus now spreading around the world.

Gen. Milley said during a Pentagon briefing Monday that he would not discuss the intelligence regarding the virus that emerged in Wuhan, China, in December, but said there were “three fundamental issues here.”

“One is, is it natural or was it man-made somehow or somehow manipulated by man-made procedures?” the four-star general said. Nothing is conclusive, the chairman said, but the weight of evidence is that the virus is “natural and not man-made.”

But unknown is whether the virus was accidentally released from one of Wuhan’s laboratories that are engaged in extensive research into bat coronaviruses, like the one behind the pandemic.

“Did it release naturally into the environment, or was it intentional?” Gen. Milley asked. “We don’t have conclusive evidence on any of that, but the weight of evidence is that it was probably not intentional.”

A third issue is the location of the outbreak, which began in Wuhan and initially was blamed by Chinese authorities on tainted meat at a wild animal “wet” market in the city.

“Did it come out of the virology lab in Wuhan? Did it occur in the wet market there in Wuhan? Did it occur somewhere else? And the answer to that is we don’t know,” Gen. Milley said, noting that many people at civilian and U.S. government agencies are looking into the origin mystery.

“It would help a great deal if the Chinese government would open up and allow inspectors and investigators to go there in full transparency, so that the world can know the actual original source of this [and] so that we can apply the lessons learned and prevent outbreaks in the future,” Gen. Milley said.

China has refused to permit U.S. or international virus experts to visit Wuhan or gain access to research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control.

Both laboratories have been engaged in extensive coronavirus research involving bats.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that Gen. Milley’s comments were “entirely consistent” with what he and President Trump have said.

“The intelligence community is still figuring out precisely where this virus began,” Mr. Pompeo said at the State Department. “We don’t have certainty, and there is significant evidence that this came from the laboratory.

“This is an ongoing challenge,” Mr. Pompeo added. “We still don’t have the samples that we need. We still don’t have the access. We collectively, the world, don’t have the samples. It’s not even just that in the moment [the Chinese] couldn’t do the right thing; they continue to be opaque, and they continue to deny access for this important information that our researchers, our epidemiologists need.”

The Chinese Communist Party knows where the outbreak began, including details of the first infected person, or “patient zero,” Mr. Pompeo said. “They’re the ones that can help unlock that.”

“It is pretty clear that at the front end of this the Chinese Communist Party misled the world,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper this week warned that China is continuing aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

Two U.S. warships were confronted by Chinese naval vessels in the sea recently in the latest round of tit-for-tat naval efforts to prevent China from achieving its goal of taking control of the international waterway.

“Last week, two U.S. Navy ships conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to send a clear message to Beijing that we will continue to protect freedom of navigation and commerce for all nations large and small,” the Pentagon chief said.

The guided missile destroyer USS Barry sailed in the sea on April 28, and China claimed it “expelled” the warship using naval vessels and aircraft. The Navy, however, denied the Chinese claim and said the Barry remained on station.

A day later, on April 29, the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill transited the same area of the Paracel Islands near Vietnam.

In another show of force, the Air Force dispatched B-1 bombers on missions near the South China Sea and over the East China Sea in the past few days.

“I want to assure the American people and our allies that the United States military remains fully ready and capable to deter every threat, protect the homeland and safeguard our interests abroad,” Mr. Esper said.

Mr. Esper also criticized China’s Communist Party for falsely spreading disinformation that the coronavirus outbreak was started in China by the U.S. military.

“While the Chinese Communist Party ramps up its disinformation campaign to try to shift blame and burnish its image, we continue to see aggressive behavior by the PLA in the South China Sea from threatening a Philippine navy ship to sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and intimidating other nations from engaging in offshore oil and gas development,” Mr. Esper said at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

China missed a deadline imposed under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, known as the BWC, last month by failing to submit an annual report on confidence-building measures, known as CBM.

The BWC implementation support unit posted a notice on the website that said several states had failed to provide their reports as required by April 15 because of the coronavirus outbreak. The reports require China to list all work carried out at research laboratories and other facilities that have the potential for biological weapons development.

The report also is supposed to include an “exchange of information on outbreaks of infectious diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins” that would seem to include the coronavirus outbreak.

The implementation support unit stated in an email that as of April 28, China had failed to meet the April 15 deadline required by the convention.

Shortly after inquiries were made to the Chinese U.N. mission by Inside the Ring, the BWC website was updated to reflect China had submitted its annual report around April 29.

The report must also provide information on past offensive or defensive biological weapons work.

The State Department’s annual arms control compliance reports have said for the past two years that China has failed to provide information about a past offensive biological weapons program.

China has acknowledged just one facility where research on biological weapons defense is carried out — the Institute for Microbiology and Epidemiology in Beijing. Other laboratories, including the now-famous Wuhan Institute of Virology, are known to conduct dual-use research — studies useful for both civilian and military applications.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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