Analysis: No, the coronavirus was not bioengineered. The rumors are false

Coronavirus COVID-19Ever since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, in December of last year, prominent public health scientists have consistently condemned rumors that it may have been bioengineered. The scientists are right to persist. The rumors that the novel coronavirus was deliberately weaponized are not supported by the available scientific evidence.

Coronaviruses are not new in nature or to humans. SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-associated coronavirus 2) is only the latest coronavirus we have identified that infects humans and causes disease (COVID-19). Because other corona viruses have also been isolated, it is possible to sequence the genome of these viruses. This provides detailed information about their origins. This is particularly important in light of the rumors that this virus has been manipulated by various governments.

Similar to the SARS-CoV strain, the one responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), this novel virus also binds to a protein, the receptor for angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is found on cells in humans, in the lungs, kidneys, GI tract, heart, and bladder. The virus uses a “spike protein” to attach to the receptor protein on cells in these regions, and then punctures the cell to inject the viral nucleic acids (genetic material). Once inside the cell, the virus nucleic acids are reproduced by the cell, and new viruses are manufactured.

When scientists analyzed the nucleic acids sequence responsible for attaching to cells, they found that the sequence was optimal, but not ideal. This means that the virus can recognize and bind tightly to the ACE2 receptor protein, but it is not perfect. This is analogous to having an old key (spike protein) that will fit into a lock (ARE2 receptor), but does not always work properly (open the door). In bioengineering, the goal is to have the perfect key so that all of the virus can enter cells and reproduce rapidly. This perfect fit is not found in SARS-CoV-2. This provides evidence of natural selection, and not of bioengineering.

Additionally, the SARS-CoV-2 genome has a unique amino acid in an important region of the spike protein. This amino acid, a proline, has an unusual structural characteristic that causes a protein to make a sharp change in direction (a turn). This is not seen in the SARS-CoV, the closest genetic relative to SARS-CoV-2. Furthermore, when the sequence for the SARS-CoV-2 is compared to other coronaviruses, the SARS-CoV-2 sequence does not appear to be derived from previously sequenced viruses. This fact also points to natural selection, since a bioengineered virus would be based on a known template that could be easily manufactured in a laboratory.

Rather it appears, from genetic and biochemical analysis, that SARS-CoV-2 started in bats, moved to pangolins, and then to humans. It is unclear whether the evolutionary changes that gave rise to the SARS-CoV-2 variant changed once it entered pangolins from bats, or whether it entered humans and continued evolving into the strain we see today. While the evidence indicates that it is highly unlikely that the virus was bioengineered, it is impossible to determine whether it entered humans in its present form, or evolved once it crossed the species barrier.

Author: Dr. A.T. | Date: 24 March 2020 | Permalink

American white supremacists wanted to weaponize COVID-19 in early February

Coronavirus COVID-19In early February, when most Western governments were just beginning to wake up to the COVID-19 threat, some American white supremacists were already exploring ways to weaponize the new virus. This is disclosed in an intelligence report authored by analysts in the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service (FPS). The FPS is a law enforcement agency whose mission includes the physical protection of buildings and facilities used by the federal government.

The revelation is included in the FPS Weekly Intelligence Brief, which covers the week of February 17-24. Federal investigators found the information while monitoring online exchanges between what the FPS analysts describe as White Racially Motivated Violent Extremists. These exchanges took place on Telegram, an encrypted social networking application that has become popular with white supremacist groups due to its strong encryption standards.

According to the FPS, white supremacists discussed methods of using COVID-19 as a weapon to target members of local and federal law enforcement, as well as “nonwhite” individuals. Methods of attack reportedly included “saliva” or “spray bottles” containing bodily fluids of COVID-19 patients. Some members of the Telegram forum suggested smearing “saliva on door handles” at FBI field offices or smearing other bodily fluids on elevator buttons of apartment buildings located in “nonwhite neighborhoods”. Some white supremacists suggested that, should one of them contract the virus, they had an “obligation” to pass it on to members of law enforcement or non-whites.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 March 2020 | Permalink

US intelligence warned White House about COVID-19 threat in January, report claims

Coronavirus Task ForceThe United States Intelligence Community issued “ominous classified warnings” in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus, but the White House failed to take timely action, according to an investigative report published on Friday in The Washington Post. The paper said that, in their totality, the Intelligence Community’s reports warned about “a virus that showed the characteristics of a globe-encircling pandemic” requiring the US government to take “swift action to contain it”.

The paper cited “a US official who had access to intelligence reporting” about the virus, who said that “the system was blinking red” in January. The “ominous” reports were disseminated to members of Congress and to senior officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump. Sources told The Washington Post that the reports did not attempt to forecast when the virus might begin to spread in the US, or what public health measures should be taken to prevent a possible outbreak. Such policy-related decisions are usually “outside the purview of the [intelligence] agencies”, said the US official.

However, the warnings were frequent and began to increase in volume by the last week of January, according to the article. By early February, the majority of the intelligence reports that were disseminated to the White House concerned COVID-19, sources said. Among other warnings, the reports cautioned President Trump that Chinese government officials were deliberately minimizing the extent and seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Washington Post cites “two senior administration officials” who claim that the president’s advisers found it difficult to draw his attention to the intelligence reports about COVID-19. It was only on January 18, less than a week before China began to place millions of its citizens on lockdown, that Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar was able to secure access to the Oval Office and speak directly with President Trump about the virus. Soon afterwards, Dr. Robert Kadlec, HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in a classified meeting. The Post cites four anonymous US officials, who said that Dr. Kadlec gave his presentation jointly with members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They discussed the global health implications of COVID-19 and warned it was a “serious” threat that would require Americans “to take actions that could disrupt their daily lives”.

But the president was “dismissive”, said administration officials, allegedly refusing to believe that the virus posed a major threat to the country. On February 24, when, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 53 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US, President Trump tweeted: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”. In the weeks that followed, said the administration officials, the White House “failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen”. Currently there are in excess of 20,000 COVID-19 cases in the US, a number that appears to double every 48 hours. Read more of this post

COVID-19 poses unprecedented operational challenges for America’s spy agencies

ODNI DNIAmerica’s Intelligence Community is facing unprecedented challenges as it tries to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. These challenges are affecting every aspect of the intelligence cycle, including collection and dissemination functions. Moreover, spy agencies are hurriedly redirecting their analytical resources to combating COVID-19, thus slowing the pace of work on other areas of national security, according to Time magazine.

Recently the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the central coordinating authority of the United States Intelligence Community, said that it was adjusting its focus in order to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic, in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). At the same time, however, the ODNI said it had reduced the physical contact between its staff members, through various methods including “staggered shifts, flexible schedules and social distancing practices”. Similar methods are being followed by other agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, said Time.

On Thursday, the newsmagazine cited three anonymous intelligence officials who said that the Intelligence Community is quickly learning how to operate under conditions deemed unprecedented. Ideally, intelligence employees would work remotely. However, the classified digital communications networks of the Intelligence Community are not readily operational from remote locations. These include the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) for secret-level information, and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) for top-secret-level information. Remote stations can be installed, but it costs between $50,000 and $70,000 per station to do so, said Time.

Additionally, top secret intelligence that is designated as Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) must remain inside specially designated physical spaces known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF). This poses problems, not only for remote operations, but also for social-distancing, as SCIFs tend to be relatively small in size. Many agencies are addressing the problem by “moving to split shifts to reduce the number of people at the office at given times” and separating personnel into “essential” and “non-essential”, but these definitions are still in the process of being determined.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting human intelligence collection, which involves the use of case officers to recruit foreign assets in order to extract information in accordance with national security directives. Countless case officers stationed around the world are currently finding it difficult to operate in cities that are either empty or under lock-down mandates. Their assets are also limited in the work that they can do, while it is expected that many will be infected by the coronavirus. One consolation to American intelligence agencies, said Time, is that their adversaries’ operations are also being hampered by the same pandemic.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 March 2020 | Research credit: J.M. | Permalink

US military given ‘continuity of government’ standby orders for COVID-19 pandemic

PentagonFor the first time in the modern history of the United States, the Department of Defense has been given standby orders to ensure the “continuity of government”, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These extraordinary measures, which include evacuating White House officials to remote quarantined locations, and devolving the nation’s leadership to “second-tier officials”, were originally meant for the aftermath of a nuclear war.

However, according to Newsweek, “Above-Top Secret” contingency plans are now in place, in case the nation’s Constitutional power successors are incapacitated by the pandemic. Standby orders have been issued for a series of plans under the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which was created in response to the 9/11 attacks as a homeland defense military authority.

These operations are codenamed OCTAGON, FREEJACK and ZODIAC, said Newsweek, and include CONPLAN 3400 (homeland defense if the US itself is the battlefield), CONPLAN 3500 (defending civil authorities in an emergency), and CONPLAN 3600 (defending the National Capital Region from an attack). Newsweek added that the Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, has authorized NORTHCOM to “prepare to deploy” in support of these “potential extraordinary missions”. These include “the possibility of some form of martial law”, where military commanders would be given executive powers across the US until a new civilian leadership would emerge.

An added complication to these plans is that the military itself is vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, which makes for “extraordinary circumstances”, said Newsweek. In recognition of this vulnerability, the Department of Defense has instituted unprecedented restrictions for off-base activities of military personnel. Having first banned overseas travel, the Pentagon is now keeping all uniformed personnel on or nearby military bases across the country and the world. Newsweek added that several other national security agencies are following the Pentagon’s contingency plans, and that continuity personnel at the White House are “readying [for an] evacuation”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 March 2020 | Permalink

US Department of Health computers targeted by hackers amidst COVID-19 crisis

Health and Human ServicesA cyberattack, coupled with a disinformation campaign, targeted the computer systems of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in what officials believe was an effort to undermine America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cyberattack reportedly took place on Sunday night, when online administrators at HHS noticed an abnormal spike in requests to the department’s servers. The number of requests grew to several million within a few hours, according to Bloomberg News, which first reported the incident. A few hours later, a campaign of disinformation was launched against the HHS, along with text messages warning that martial law would be declared across the nation and a two-week curfew would be imposed by the Armed Forces.

The disinformation campaign prompted a tweet by the US National Security Council on Sunday. The tweet warned against “fake” text messages spreading unsubstantiated rumors. There was no elaboration about the content of these text messages. On Monday, the HHS acknowledged that its computer systems had come under attack the previous evening. However, it said that the hackers behind the attack had failed to compromise the integrity of the Department’s computer systems, and that no data had been stolen.

Later on Monday, the HHS said that it was still investigating what it described as “a significant increase in activity” on its computer infrastructure. But it added that its systems remained “fully operational” and that the functionality of its networks had suffered “no degradation”. An HHS spokesman said the Department had augmented its cybersecurity protections in light of the COVID-19 emergency. Consequently, it had suffered no loss of operational capacity or data as a result of the cyberattack.

Speaking at the White House on Monday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that the source of the cyberattack was under investigation and refused to speculate as to the identity of the culprit or culprits. However, Bloomberg said that some US government officials suspect that the attack “may have been the work of a foreign actor”. On March 13, the US news network NBC cited experts from several cybersecurity firms who warned that spy agencies around the world were sending out coronavirus information in an attempt to “hack and spy on their targets”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 March 2020 | Research credit: M.S. | Permalink

New York governor asks Trump to mobilize army to prevent COVID-19 meltdown

Andrew CuomoThe governor of New York has asked United States President Donald Trump to mobilize the Army in order to avoid a healthcare meltdown that will be “worse […] than what we are seeing in Italy”. In an open letter published in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, Governor Andrew Cuomo warned that hospitals in the state of New York will soon reach the point of medical no-return if the federal government does not step in.

Governor Cuomo said that intensive care units in hospitals throughout the state of New York —one of America’s most populous, with 20 million residents— were already at an 80 percent capacity as of yesterday. He added that if a few hundred more New Yorkers were to require hospitalization from acute COVID-19 illness, the state’s healthcare system would lack the capacity to treat them. As things stood yesterday, said Governor Cuomo, New York was short of “thousands of ICU beds [and] thousands of ventilators”. This scarcity pointed to “a greater failing and a worse situation than what we are seeing in Italy, where lives ‎are being lost because the country doesn’t have the health care capacity” to accommodate the wave of patients caused by the pandemic, said the governor.

To address the problem, Governor Cuomo urged President Trump to take an unprecedented step, namely to mobilize the US Army Corps of Engineers in order to retrofit public buildings throughout the state into medical facilities. These would include schools, gyms and college dorms, said Cuomo, adding that the state lacked “the physical capacity” to construct new medical facilities or retrofit existing buildings into medical units on its own.

The New York governor went on to add that the new medical facilities would have to be ready to use within a matter of weeks, if the state’s healthcare system was to avoid the very real possibility of a full-blown medical disaster. As of last night it was not clear whether the White House would respond to Governor Cuomo’s request.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 March 2020 | Permalink