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May 28, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

NIH defends funding for Wuhan virus work
The National Institutes of Health recently responded to a request for comment on an Australian scientific study that said the coronavirus causing the outbreak of COVID-19 globally appears to have been manipulated in a Wuhan laboratory.

Amanda Fine, chief of NIH’s media office, told Inside the Ring that Kizzmekia Corbett, a leading viral immunologist at the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) in NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, declined to comment on the Australian study.

Ms. Corbett, who is leading work on a coronavirus vaccine, faced questions in April when a review of her social media posts revealed she had suggested the pandemic is part of a genocide against blacks, Fox News reported.

Ms. Fine stated in an email that NIH gave a $292,000 grant last year to the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based research group, that involved the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a sub-awardee of the research contract. The funds “supported research that characterized the function of newly discovered bat spike proteins and naturally occurring pathogens,” she stated.

“It did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied and was not subject to the Gain-of-Function Research Funding Pause or its successor, the DHHS Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens,” Ms. Fine said.

“Gain of function” research involves increasing the lethality and transmissibility of viruses and was banned by the U.S. government in 2014 over concerns about creating deadly viruses that could cause pandemics.

As a result, “NIH cannot comment on this paper, or the debate on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” she added, referring to the Australian study.

The research by EcoHealth Alliance was described as “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” and involved work with Shi Zhengli, the lead researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Ms. Shi is known as the “bat woman of Wuhan” for her extensive work on bat coronaviruses, including gain-of-function research.

The research began in 2014 and ended on April 24, according to the NIH website, and involved total funding of $3.38 million.

The forthcoming study by five Australian scientists found that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused COVID-19 contained unique properties that allowed it to much more easily infect humans than other animals.

The scientists stated in a preliminary report that there also was no sign that the virus can be found in other animals, including bats or exotic wildlife sold for fresh meat at a market in the Chinese city of Wuhan that many have targeted as the origin of the virus.

The lead scientist, Nikolai Petrovsky, concluded that the virus’ ability to bind to human cells is unmatched and the lack of evidence for the virus in nature “leads to the possibility that COVID-19 is a human-created virus.”

The Australian paper contradicts the views of many U.S. scientists and a U.S. intelligence community conclusion made public April 30 that backed “the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man-made or genetically modified.”

Yuan Zhiming, director of the National Biosafety Laboratory in Wuhan, which has conducted extensive bat coronavirus research, denied again Tuesday that the laboratory was the source of the outbreak.

“All analyses of the SARS-CoV-2 genome by global researchers have proved that it is entirely new and is different from already known viruses,” Mr. Yuan told the state-run China Daily. “There is also no information within the novel coronavirus genome indicating it was man-made.”

The White House recently made public its strategic approach to communist China that for the first time in decades concludes that conciliatory policies and engagement with Beijing have failed to produce a more moderate regime.

“More than 40 years later, it has become evident that this approach underestimated the will of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to constrain the scope of economic and political reform in China,” the strategy says. “Over the past two decades, reforms have slowed, stalled or reversed.”

The 16-page strategic review challenges pro-China academics and analysts who for years ignored or played down China’s nefarious activities, including massive human rights abuses and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technology.

The document is unusual because similar reports that the White House National Security Council has produced were labeled “top secret” and were available only to the most senior officials in government.

The report states that the United States is not seeking to oust the CCP, which the Trump administration has distinguished as the key strategic problem within China.

“Our approach is not premised on determining a particular end state for China,” the report says. “Rather, our goal is to protect United States vital national interests.”

The competitive approach seeks to bolster U.S. institutions, alliances and partnerships to counter threats posed by China. Second, the administration wants to “compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States’ vital, national interests and those of our allies and partners.”

The White House also for the first time revealed the ideological threat posed by the Chinese communist system to fundamental U.S. values.

The Chinese Communist Party “promotes globally a value proposition that challenges the bedrock American belief in the unalienable right of every person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the report said. “China is engaged in ideological competition that includes an anticipated long-term period of cooperation and conflict. Beijing also has declared it expects U.S.-led capitalism ‘to die out and socialism is bound to win.’”

“The United States does not and will not accommodate Beijing’s actions that weaken a free, open, and rules-based international order,” the report says. “We will continue to refute the CCP’s narrative that the United States is in strategic retreat or will shirk our international security commitments.”

American gestures of goodwill over several decades were not met with Chinese offers of compromise. Therefore, the United States will no longer engage with Beijing for “symbolism and pageantry,” the report said. “We instead demand tangible results and constructive outcomes,” the report says.

William C. Triplett II, former chief counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the new strategy as a turning point for better policies in dealing with China.

“This document represents a total rejection of 30 years of U.S. government and establishment policy towards the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Triplett told Inside the Ring.

“Whether you call it ‘engagement’ or ‘stakeholders’ or ‘military-to-military relations’ or ‘membership in the World Trade Organization,’ whatever, all of it, every bit of it, was all wrongheaded.”

The new approach also undermines the pro-China academics who recently organized an open letter urging the Trump administration to ignore China’s deadly mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak and seek to continue “cooperation” with Beijing.

“A very few people saw their careers — and their bank accounts — soar, but for the vast majority of the people whom this policy touched, it has been a disaster of monumental proportions, not just for the tens of thousands who lost their lives to the trafficking of Chinese-origin fentanyl and now the millions lost to the incompetence, lies and cover-up of a worldwide epidemic, again of Chinese origin,” Mr. Triplett said.

Richard Grenell, U.S. ambassador to Germany, was called in to be acting director of national intelligence in February and won high praise for both new transparency initiatives and for a major downsizing of the bureaucratically bloated DNI office.

One of the little-noticed actions Mr. Grenell took was a directive to better protect the identities of U.S. officials contained in top-secret electronic intelligence intercept reports. Previously, the National Security Agency and other agencies that handle transcripts of foreign electronic intercepts had no uniform standards for how to protect, or “mask,” the names of executive branch officials inadvertently captured in intercepts.

The rules for masking members of Congress were uniform: All were identified in transcripts as “member of Congress” and “member of congress 1” or “member of congress 2” if there was more than one. There was no further identification of their party, state or position within the leadership.

However, for officials of the administration, the masking was not uniform and often was lightly disguised so that the identity of the official could be easily discerned.

“When it came to the executive branch, they were using total titles and descriptions where you could figure out who it was without even unmasking,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the new directive.

The new directive changes identification rules to uniformly limit descriptors to “U.S. official” followed, as with Congress, by numbers if there is more than one.

“We don’t say ‘member of Congress from western Kentucky,” the official said. “So why are we going to say ‘assistant to the president and policy adviser’?”

The official was apparently referring to the extensive unmasking requests — 39 in total — by Obama administration officials and others during late 2016 and early 2017 that revealed former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s role in calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Details of the calls were leaked to the press and led to Flynn’s resignation and ultimately questionable charges against him for lying to the FBI.

The new directive is based on the idea that U.S. intelligence agencies “have an obligation to be describing people, pre-unmasking, limited to as general a descriptive as possible,” the official said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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