NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The emergence of the omicron strain of COVID-19 is raising new questions about the still undetermined origin of the coronavirus outbreak and whether it leaked from a Chinese research laboratory in Wuhan in 2019.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief Biden administration pandemic response official, said the virus mutations in the omicron variant indicate an unusual, rapid evolution. The mutations are “very different” from earlier virus offshoots, although some of the mutations can be found in the delta variant and are linked to increased transmissibility and immune evasion, he said.
“There’s a very unusual constellation of changes across the SARS-CoV-2 genome, with greater than 30 of them in the important spike protein which is the business end of the virus, particularly in its receptor-binding domain where there are about 10 mutations there,” Dr. Fauci told reporters on Tuesday.
SARS-CoV-2 is the formal name of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The large number of mutations is raising new concerns about whether the virus was laboratory-derived or spread naturally from infected animals.
According to a former military medical doctor, there are significant mutations close to what is called the “furin cleavage site,” the area that can increase the virulence of the virus, that are sparking new concerns among public health officials.
An article from August in the journal Lancet Microbe states: “The presence of a furin cleavage motif at the SARS-CoV-2 S1–S2 interface is therefore highly unusual, leading to the smoking-gun hypothesis of manipulation that has recently gained considerable attention as a possible origin” of COVID-19.
Viruses, according to medical experts, tend to evolve from existing viruses that are already circulating, such as the delta variant, not from the first virus strain that emerged in China. Beijing has thwarted efforts by U.S. and international investigators to obtain details of the original strain.
However, the omicron variant appears to have derived directly from the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, one that has not been observed in the wild in months.
The online outlet Science: The Wire stated in a post on Monday that “the omicron variant has virologists in particular worried because it seems to be very different from the ‘original’ strain of the virus — the strain that the current COVID-19 vaccines were designed to fight.”
The report said omicron has 50 mutations in all and 32 are linked to the spike protein that allows it to gain entry into host cells. The spike protein is the target of most current vaccines.
This has raised worries that the strain will have an extraordinary ability to infect humans, although reports so far say that most cases of the omicron strain of COVID-19 have been mild.
“Omicron’s genetic profile has raised legitimate concerns – but at the same time there is a marked shortage of real-world data to make sure. As a result, nobody has the complete picture of what the omicron variant is and isn’t capable of. We don’t know the magnitude of the threat posed by omicron,” the Science post said.
The unusual evolution of omicron and the timing of its emergence — just as the world is coming to grips with the delta variant — should fuel new investigations of whether the virus was manufactured in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided over whether the virus originated in a laboratory or emerged naturally from an infected animal carrier such as a bat or a pangolin.
New deterrence needed to prevent war with China
The United States risks losing a war with China trying to defend Taiwan militarily but can deter a Chinese takeover of the island nation through a new strategy of non-military “deterrence by punishment,” according to an Army journal report.
The military balance across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait has shifted in Beijing’s favor and thus the current strategy of so-called military deterrence by denial is less effective, according to the report in Parameters, a quarterly published by the Army War College. A lack of clear U.S. military supremacy has sparked fears that China’s military will seek to use force to unite the self-ruled island state.
“The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now powerful enough [that] it probably could overrun Taiwan even if the United States intervened to defend Taipei. Both sides know this — or at least strongly suspect it,” the report states.
A China military analyst told the authors of the report that the PLA plans to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan in 14 hours – and that the Chinese calculate it would take the United States and Japan 24 hours to organize a defense of Taiwan.
“If this scenario is close to being accurate, China’s government might well be inclined to attempt a fait accompli as soon as it is confident in its relative capabilities,” the report said.
The Chinese blitzkrieg strategy also is outlined in the PLA’s 2013 military doctrine. The doctrine declares China must “strive to catch the enemy unexpectedly and attack him when he is not prepared, to seize and control the battlefield initiative, paralyze and destroy the enemy’s operational system, and shock the enemy’s will for war.”
The current deterrence-by-denial strategy based on military power should be replaced, the report argues.
A new strategy of deterrence by punishment would seek to make the costs of a Taiwan invasion so excessive that the generally risk-averse leadership in Beijing will decide against an invasion. Those punishment costs would include threatening a fierce guerrilla warfare campaign inside Taiwan by resistance forces that could also be expanded to the mainland.
Supplying Taiwan with targeted defensive arms, such as truck-mounted Harpoon anti-ship missiles, mobile rocket systems and surf-zone sea mines, also would bolster the new strategy.
Additionally, the new strategy calls for threatening to destroy critical assets, such as facilities of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, regarded as the most important microchip maker in the world and China’s most important supplier.
Taking out TSMC “would mean China’s high-tech industries would be immobilized,” in a time of war, the report said.
The report stops short of calling for shifting the current U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, policy that does not recognize Taiwan as independent or its ties to mainland China.
The new strategy is called “Broken Nest,” a play on the Chinese proverb that asks, “Beneath a broken nest, how can there be any whole eggs?”
In the Taiwan case, Broken Nest suggests that if the United States can’t block China from seizing Taiwan, a new strategy should be adopted that would convince Chinese leaders that an invasion would “produce a peace more injurious than the status quo,” the report concludes.
The report was written by Jared M. McKinney, a professor of strategy at the Air Force’s Air University, and Peter Harris, a political science professor at Colorado State University.
Chinese missile sub spotted in Taiwan Strait
Satellite imagery captured a rare surface transit of the Taiwan Strait this week by one of the People’s Liberation Army ballistic missile submarines, according to internet reporting.
Military analyst H.I. Sutton reported on his undersea warfare website Covert Shores on satellite imagery taken Nov. 29 showing a Type-094, or Jin-class missile submarine sailing about 18 miles west of the Taiwanese island of Quemoy.
The report said the submarine was traveling north from a submarine base in the South China Sea and was escorted by another vessel.
The low-resolution image of the submarine makes it difficult to identify, but the report said the wake patterns were typical of a submarine and the length appears to be that of a Jin-class boat.
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