NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, revealed in prepared Senate testimony this week that some U.S. intelligence agencies — not identified by name — believe the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic may have been genetically modified in a laboratory and not transmitted naturally from an animal host in China, where it was first identified.
Limited and fragmentary information on the virus origin led to multiple theories on the virus origin among the 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, he said. Despite the uncertainty, all agencies claim the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 was not developed as a biological weapon.
But Gen. Berrier added without elaborating that “most agree that it was not genetically engineered.” That suggests more than one intelligence agency has information pointing to the COVID virus still spreading worldwide as containing human-produced genetic modifications.
It was the first time a government official disclosed on the record declassified intelligence indicating the coronavirus behind the pandemic could have been manipulated in a laboratory, a charge the Chinese government has fiercely denied.
The DIA’s National Center for Medical Intelligence is the most forward-leaning within U.S. government circles in asserting the virus came from a Chinese laboratory. The DIA medical unit is said to base its assessment on intelligence related to Chinese military experiments. Other intelligence is based on military activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, considered one likely source for the virus outbreak that first emerged in late 2019 in the city of Wuhan.
A 2015 book by a group of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) medical specialists and obtained by the State Department alleged that the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was caused by a genetically-modified bat coronavirus known as SARS-CoV. One PLA doctor stated that the virus was weaponized and used to attack China.
“It can be seen that the new human virus ecological gene weapon is very close to the natural state, so it is difficult to detect and prevent and control,” states a translated portion of the book obtained by Inside the Ring. “It often enters the attacked party in a very ‘natural’ state, which makes it more difficult to identify.”
Another sign of possible genetic manipulation of the COVID coronavirus was outlined in a 2013 medical journal article by a group of scientists who included the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s director Shi Zhengli, dubbed the “Bat Woman of Wuhan” for her research.
The article in Nature Medicine stated that Ms. Shi and nine others had genetically engineered a “SARS-like” chimeric and hybrid virus from bats. The virus was intended to help research whether such viruses could infect humans.
The State Department in January 2021 revealed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) had conducted PLA experiments on animals contrary to Beijing’s insistence that the institute did not conduct military research.
“Starting in at least 2016 — and with no indication of a stop prior to the COVID-19 outbreak — WIV researchers conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar),” the department said in a fact sheet.
Chinese secrecy surrounding the origin of the virus has prevented international investigators from pinpointing the cause of the pandemic that Gen. Berrier said has killed more than 6.2 million people worldwide.
“China continues to obscure all investigations into the origins of COVID-19 that would assist in making a definitive assessment, preventing the release of information such as data on early cases, access to potential host species, or documents from internal investigations — behavior indicative of a desire to keep COVID origins secret,” Gen. Berrier said.
Gen. Berrier said four agencies and the National Intelligence Council “assess with low confidence that the virus likely emerged from a natural interaction between an animal infected with the virus and a human. One [intelligence agency] assesses with moderate confidence a laboratory origin is more likely and three other [agencies] are unable to arrive at either conclusion without additional information.”
Different waves of COVID variants have spread over the past year and DIA analysts predict additional waves over the next six months.
“The emergence of novel respiratory viruses capable of causing sustained human-to-human transmission on multiple continents, like COVID- 19 and its variants, continues to pose the greatest enduring infectious disease risk to U.S. personnel,” the general testified.
China-Russia ties closer than ever
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier testified to Congress this week that the strategic alignment between China and Russia is growing, with ties closer now than at any time since the split between the Soviet Union and Mao’s China in the 1960s.
China and Russia are increasing military cooperation and activities, including some coordination with strategic nuclear forces. The expansion of ties comes despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Gen. Berrier stated.
“For three of the past four years, the [People’s Liberation Army] has participated in Russia’s strategic command and staff exercise,” Gen. Berrier said. “Although China did not participate in Russia’s 2021 strategic exercise, which was focused in western Russia, Beijing, for the first time, invited the Russian military to participate in a strategic campaign exercise in northwest China.”
Declassified intelligence on the strategic nuclear coordination and drills indicates any future U.S. conflict with China could involve Russian military forces in the Pacific.
The general stated in a 70-page prepared statement for the Senate Armed Services Committee made public on Tuesday that relations between Moscow and Beijing “are probably their deepest since any time before the Sino-Soviet split.”
China’s communist regime was installed with extensive support from Moscow in 1949 but split from the Soviets in 1960. The rupture followed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Josef Stalin, angering the more doctrinaire Mao Zedong, who admired Stalin.
“Both countries coordinate on high-priority geopolitical issues to maximize their power and influence, while bilateral military cooperation continues to evolve — punctuated by a growing number of combined military exercises,” the three-star intelligence chief said.
Gen. Berrier said Chinese military forces took part in Russia’s largest annual wargames, dubbed Vostok-2018, for the first time.
“Since then, China has participated in two other Russian capstone exercises, conducted three combined bomber patrols over the Sea of Japan, and circumnavigated Japan together in October 2021, marking their first combined maritime patrol,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expects Chinese President Xi Jinping to help mitigate the impact of U.S. and Western sanctions that are damaging the Russian economy, Gen. Berrier stated.
Mr. Xi will be “critical to alleviating the departure of credit card companies, creating a viable alternative to [global banking transfer network] SWIFT, signing further energy deals, and leveraging Chinese technology.”
Beijing’s backing for Russia economically is limited so far, based on Chinese fears of being hit with secondary sanctions for supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Despite continued military cooperation, China and Russia have denied any intent to enter into a formal alliance, apparently viewing the strategic effects of their current cooperation as sufficient to accomplish their goals,” Gen. Berrier said.
Stratcom opposed to killing nuclear cruise missile
U.S. Strategic Command head Adm. Charles Richard is opposing President Biden’s recent decision to cancel a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile known as the SLCM-N.
Adm. Richard, a combatant commander in charge of the nuclear arsenal, said during a Senate hearing last week that his forces are facing a “deterrence and assurance gap” if they do not get the nuclear cruise missile.
“One of the takeaways…from Ukraine is, there are certain scenarios that were judged to be highly improbable that have now materialized in front of us in real life,” he told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, in reiterating support for the missile. “And I think that requires us to go back and reassess some of the decisions we’ve made in the past.”
The administration’s most recent budget submission contained no money for the SLCM-N.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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