COVID-19 prompts spy agencies’ mission shift that is ‘reminiscent of the space race’

COVID-19 coronavirusThe worldwide competition to invent a vaccine that can curtail the spread of COVID-19 has prompted a mission shift in major intelligence agencies around the world, which is “reminiscent of the space race”, according to The New York Times. In an article published on Saturday, the paper cited “interviews with current and former intelligence officials and others tracking the espionage efforts”, who suggest that the mission shift observed in spy agencies worldwide has been among the fastest in history.

According to The New York Times, “every major spy service around the globe is trying to find out what everyone else is up to” in coronavirus research, and “to steal information about vaccine research”. Much of this biomedical espionage is taking place in international bodies, such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO), where spies try to access useful data from rival countries. The paper said that the Central Intelligence Agency and other Western spy agencies are closely watching their rivals, including Chinese and Russian operatives, inside the WHO.

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is “has moved to protect [American] universities and corporations doing the most advanced work” on the virus, including the University of North Carolina (UNC). The paper said that UNC’s Epidemiology Department came under a sustained attack by foreign hackers recently, as have major American pharmaceutical research companies, including Gilead Sciences, Novavax and Moderna. In other cases, foreign spies have tried to gain physical proximity to biomedical researchers. According to The Times, part of the reason why the administration of US President Donald Trump decided to shut down the Chinese consulate in Huston in July, was because it believed Chinese spies had used it as a base from where to make contacts with American biomedical researchers.

Officially, America’s stance on the coronavirus espionage race is purely defensive. But, according to The Times, American spy agencies are also trying to find out what Russian, Chinese and Iranian scientists have in their possession, in an attempt to see if is stolen. As they do that, “they could encounter information on those countries’ research and collect it”, said the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 September 2020 | Permalink

US military records 22 percent increase in COVID-19 cases in one week

COVID-19 PentagonUnited States military officials are raising concerns about the rate of increase of COVID-19 cases in the Armed Forces, which appears to be growing at twice the national rate. Last week, the Department of Defense said that the number of its personnel that contracted the virus rose by 22 percent compared to the week before. The spike is even bigger in the Marine Corps, which saw a 30 percent increase last week.

Nearly 30,000 Department of Defense affiliated personnel —which includes civilians, contractors and dependents of employees— have contracted the virus since the first case of a military service member with COVID-19 made news in February. It took just over six weeks for 10,000 COVID-19 cases to be recorded among Pentagon personnel. But the number has now doubled in half that time, according to The Military Times.

What concerns American military planners is that the rapid rise in positive coronavirus cases is occurring despite the implementation of strict guidelines for wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and restricting the movement of military personnel outside bases. Part of the problem is that many of the southern states that are currently seeing a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases, such as Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona, are home to large military bases.

Meanwhile, Kris Alexander, who recently retired after serving as a COVID-19 crisis planner at NORTHCOM in Colorado Springs, warned on Sunday that the virus is likely to spread even faster in the ranks of the military and National Guard during the upcoming hurricane season. He writes that the coronavirus has incapacitated volunteer organizations, like the Red Cross, whose trained disaster responders are usually older in age. The lack of volunteers, says Alexander, would necessitate the use of the National Guard in case of a natural disaster, which would likely stretch the already stretched National Guard to the breaking point. The next step, he says, would require the mobilization of troops under the US Army’s Defense Support to Civil Authorities mission.

“But the real problems would come after their exposure to the virus in the disaster zone”, says Alexander. Active-duty forces would do their best to help in a possible disaster zone, but many of them would likely contract the virus and bring it back to their bases, including to the military doctors who cater to the needs of Department of Defense personnel. Such a scenario would cause major spikes of the virus among military and security personnel by the end of the year, according to Alexander.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 July 2020 | Permalink

News you may have missed #901

Michal GarbovitzUS Army already looking to future pandemics. While still in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the US Army is already thinking ahead about the impacts of future pandemics and how they will affect the service, according to the head of Army Futures Command. General John Murray, Futures Command’s commanding general, said on May 27 that “The chances of this happening again are not zero for sure”. “It’s demographics, it’s urbanization, it’s economies, it’s pandemics,” he said during a teleconference with reporters hosted by George Washington University’s Project for Media and National Security.
The sex worker who spied for Israel’s pre-state militia. Once a disregarded sex worker, today Michal Garbovitz is hailed for aiding the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization in British-Mandate Palestine between 1920 and 1948. Described in contemporary accounts as a “good-looking and handsome” woman, Garbovitz was estranged by her Jewish family for fraternizing with Arabs. However, during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 against the Mandatory forces, she “exploited her contacts with Arabs and British police officers to extract vital information and transfer it to the Haganah”.
Should COVID-19 status be a protected classification? People who have recovered from COVID-19 already face significant disadvantages, even if they have fully recuperated from the virus. For instance, the military announced several weeks ago that recovering from COVID-19 would be a permanently disqualifying condition for entrance into the armed services. Although the military later clarified that such a disqualification would only apply to individuals hospitalized because of COVID-19, many people who have recovered from the virus will face obstacles to joining the military due to these restrictions.

US Pentagon’s top general says COVID-19 has natural origins, but questions remain

Mark MilleyThe United States Department of Defense’s top general has said that “the weight of evidence” gathered by Western spy agencies points to COVID-19 having “natural” origins, but this is not yet conclusive. Ever since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, prominent scientists have dismissed rumors that it could be a synthesized bioweapon. According to reports, this question is being carefully examined by Western intelligence agencies.

At a press conference on Tuesday, US Army General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by a reporter whether the Pentagon had “any evidence that the [novel corona]virus began in a Chinese lab and maybe was released accidentally”. General Milley response was as follows: “There’s a lot of rumor and speculation in a wide variety of media, blog sites, etc. It should be no surprise to you that we’ve taken a keen interest in that and we’ve had a lot of intelligence [experts] take a hard look at that. At this point it’s inconclusive, although the weight of evidence seems to indicate natural. But”, added the general, “we don’t know for certain”.

On the same day General Milley made these comments, an extensive report on the subject by Yahoo News’ National Security and Investigations Reporter Jenna McLaughlin said that the US Intelligence Community continued to actively gather information on the outbreak. Citing “nine current and former intelligence and national security officials familiar with ongoing investigations” on the novel coronavirus, McLaughlin said that American intelligence agencies had been gathering information on the outbreak “as early as November” of last year. Scientists working for US spy agencies had quickly dismissed the theory that the virus had been deliberately weaponized. A consensus appears to be forming that the virus is “of natural origin”, according to the report.

However, American and other Western spy agencies are “still weighing the possibility” that the virus may have escaped from a government laboratory in Wuhan, where it was being studied by scientists. McLaughlin quotes one American intelligence official who says: “we are actively and vigorously tracking down every piece of information we get on this topic [and] are writing frequently to update policymakers”. At this point, adds the official, the US Intelligence Community “has not come down on any one theory”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 April 2020 | Permalink

Pentagon study warned about global crisis caused by ‘novel respiratory disease’

DoD Pandemic reportA United States Department of Defense report warned about the danger of a global crisis caused by a “novel respiratory disease”. The existence of the 2017 study adds to the mounting skepticism about President Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that the coronavirus pandemic “blind- sided the world” and “came out of nowhere”.

The 103-page report is titled USNORTHCOM Branch Plan 3560: Pandemic Influenza and Infectious Disease Response, and was presented to the leadership of the US Northern Command headquarters in January 2017. It discusses the possible causes of a “clinically severe pandemic” and outlines the complications that it is likely to cause around the world. It also proposes an array of possible responses to such a crisis by the US military. A draft of the report was published online by The Nation earlier this month. The American newsmagazine said that it obtained the report from “a Pentagon official who requested anonymity to avoid professional reprisal”.

The Department of Defense study bases its analysis on data acquired from recent pandemics, such as the 2012 Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS coronavirus) and others. It discusses “coronavirus infections” and warns that “[t]he most likely and significant [pandemic] threat is a novel respiratory disease, particularly a novel influenza disease”. The report then goes on to describe the medical supply shortages that would be caused by a coronavirus pandemic. It does so with a stunning degree of accuracy that mirrors the situation that the US is currently experiencing due to COVID-19. For instance it states that global “[c]ompetition for, and scarcity of, resources will include […] non-pharmaceutical Medical Countermeasures”, namely medical masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment needed by healthcare workers.

It also warns that dire shortages in medical equipment will be hampered by inadequate logistical support and will have “a significant impact on the global workforce”. Furthermore, the Pentagon study appears to anticipate a “worldwide competition” for ventilators and other hi-tech medical devices associated with intensive care units, as well as a scarcity of hospital beds. It ominously states that “even the most industrialized countries will have insufficient hospital beds” to accommodate the numbers of those who will need to be hospitalized due to having been infected by the virus.

Two weeks ago, The Washington Post reported that, starting in January of this year, the US Intelligence Community repeatedly warned the White House about “a virus that showed the characteristics of a globe-encircling pandemic” requiring “swift action to contain it”. The paper cited “a US official who had access to intelligence reporting” about the coronavirus, who said that “the system was blinking red” in January.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 April 2020 | Permalink

Pentagon leaders see COVID-19 crisis lasting months, destabilizing regions

Mark Esper MilleyThe United States Department of Defense is working under the assumption that the COVID-19 epidemic will seriously affect the life of the country for “at least several months”, and might cause “political chaos” in parts of the world. This was stated during a virtual town hall for members of the US Armed Forces, which was hosted on Tuesday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley.

General Milley told participants that the Pentagon was planning “for this to be a few months at least”. He added that, according to all indications, the US was looking at “eight to 10, maybe 12 weeks —something like three months” of confronting serious disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It could be “as late as July”, said Milley, and assured the audience that the Department of Defense was “taking all precautionary measures to be in it for the long-haul”.

Both speakers speculated that the pandemic could destabilize a number of countries around the world, and that the ensuing lack of security could pose threats to US interests. Milley pointed out that acute shortages of critical medical equipment, such as respirators, gloves, masks and ventilators, could cause certain countries to spiral into instability that will “go well beyond the immediate medical issues” and “lead to political chaos”.

On Wednesday, Brigadier General Dr. Paul Friedrichs, who serves as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Staff Surgeon (the Pentagon’s most senior medical professional), said that COVID-19 was spreading too quickly for experts to determine how many troops would eventually end up contracting the disease. However, Dr. Friedrichs cautioned against lightening any restrictions on social distancing before sufficient time passes to “make a dent” on infection rates. Doing so “could be disastrous”, he warned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 March 2020 | Permalink

Spain ‘shifts to a war economy’ and calls on NATO for help with COVID-19

COVID-19 SpainThe government of Spain said on Tuesday it had begun to shift to “a war economy”, as the Spanish Ministry of Defense called on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for assistance to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The term war economy is used to describe the rapid reorganization of a nation’s production and distribution capacity in response to a direct military threat to its existence.

Spanish officials announced on Tuesday that the rate of COVID-19 illness in the country was growing faster than in Italy. Despite a nationally mandated lockdown, which began on March 14, coronavirus infections exceeded 42,000 yesterday, up from 25,000 on Saturday. Spanish medical facilities announced 514 new deaths in a 24-hour period, bringing the total number of COVID-19-related deaths to 2696. The deaths are reflective of Spain’s desperate struggle to provide sufficient medical supplies for its healthcare workers, or treatment hardware for patients.

On Tuesday afternoon, NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) said it had received “a request for international assistance from the Armed Forces of Spain in their response to the global pandemic”. The EADRCC said in a press statement that the Spanish military had asked its “international partners […] to provide assistance to the Ministry of Defense of Spain”. Spanish media reported that the request included “450,000 respirators, 500,000 rapid testing kits, 500 ventilators and 1.5 million surgical masks”.

Meanwhile the Spanish military helped convert an ice ring in Madrid’s popular Palacio de Hielo mall into a makeshift morgue, in order to accommodate the projected surge in deaths due to COVID-19 in the coming days. The Spanish capital has suffered over 30 percent of all coronavirus-related deaths in the past week. Over the weekend, a nearby convention center was converted into a hospital that can accommodate 5,500 patients.

In neighboring France, the army set up a field hospital on French territory for the first time in the country’s peacetime history. Field hospitals are temporary tent structures designed to provide medical services to wounded soldiers and civilians in a warzone. The erection of field hospital tents in the eastern city of Mulhouse, close to the Swiss and German borders, was described by the French media as an unprecedented sight.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 March 2020 | Permalink

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

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

Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’ as COVID-19 stirs Gulf tensions

Tehran IranA senior Bahraini cabinet minister on Thursday accused the Iranian government of ‘biological aggression’ for spreading COVID-19 to several other countries in the Gulf, a claim that Iran promptly rejected. The allegation refers to Iran’s customary practice of not stamping the passport of visitors from some Sunni-majority nations.

The practice aims to shield visitors from perceived discrimination upon their return to their Sunni-majority home countries. Several Sunni Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, have either criminalized or openly discourage trips to Iran by their Shi’a citizens. The latter are often viewed as suspicious or disloyal by their own governments. However, many of them continue to travel regularly to Iran in order to visit some of Shi’a Islam’s most revered pilgrimage sites.

Thousands of Shi’a pilgrims from predominantly Sunni nations have been repatriated to their home countries following the outbreak of COVID-19, which is also known as coronavirus. Earlier this week, Bahrain announced that at least 77 of its citizens, who were recently repatriated from Iran on government-supplied airplanes, tested positive for the disease. However, many others returned home from Iran on their own and are hesitant to tell local authorities that they have traveled to Iran, fearing discrimination or —in some cases— imprisonment. Since the passports of these individuals are not stamped with Iranian entry visas, local authorities have no way of telling whether they have recently traveled to Iran.

On Thursday, Bahrain’s Minister of Interior, General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, condemned Iran on Twitter for its “behavior, [which] has allowed the disease to travel abroad and put in danger our safety and health and that of others”. General al-Khalifa added that Iran’s behavior constituted “a form of biological aggression that is criminalized under international law”. But Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by rejecting the claim that the practice of not stamping passports was related to an intention by Tehran to spread the coronavirus to the Gulf region.

Bahrain’s accusation came less than a week after Saudi Arabia publicly chastised its citizens who have traveled to Iran and issued a reminder that traveling to Iran is considered a criminal act.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 March 2020 | Permalink

Coronavirus: Comparing America’s bungling fiasco with Taiwan’s stunning success

Coronavirus Task ForceThe coronavirus (COVID-19) is quickly becoming the greatest security challenge of our time. The ease of transmission and high death rate of this disease, coupled with the asymmetric challenges it poses to our planet’s social, economic and political structures, threaten the very cohesion of our global system. This is especially true of Western societies, whose highly sophisticated organizational features make them especially susceptible to all forms of large-scale disruption. Few of those of us who are alive today in the West have ever faced a threat with the all-encompassing characteristics, disruptive capacity and persistent nature of COVID-19.

But no American would get this impression by watching the daily briefings of the so-called White House “Coronavirus Task Force”. The uncomfortable smiles and awkward acquiescence of its members, part of an unconvincing effort to assure Americans that “all is well”, coupled with their seemingly unending competition to offer lavish praises to each other, make for a truly uncomfortable viewing experience. Such astounding manifestations of mediocrity would be somewhat tolerable if they came alongside actionable information that Americans could use to protect themselves and the future of their country —preferably something beyond “washing your hands for at least 20 seconds”.

On February 26, Americans were told by their president that “within a couple of days [COVID-19 cases in the US would] be down close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done”. By that time, China was feverishly implementing the largest quarantine in human history. Ten days later, Italy began to quarantine 16 million people —a quarter of its population— in its northern regions. Meanwhile, Britain has begun re-hiring retired nurses to prepare for the coming unprecedented wave of medical emergencies, while France has banned all large meetings in its territory. But in America it’s business as usual: the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced on Sunday that all its tournament games nationwide will be held with fans despite growing concerns about the coronavirus. Not a single senior government official has stepped forward to address Americans’ growing anxiety about the potentially unprecedented degree of disruption that the US economy, including the nation’s supply chain, healthcare, transportation, education, entertainment, and services sectors are going to be experiencing in the coming months.

Additionally, Americans expect the so-called “Task Force” to provide non-politicized explanations of the ongoing failures of the US government’s treatment to the COVID-19 crisis, which continue to allow the virus to spread in our communities unabated. For instance, why did the US decline to use the World Health Organization’s diagnostic test for the disease, which had been made available to dozens of nations by the end of January? Or why does access to testing kits remain at alarmingly low levels, so much so that a frustrated New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently described the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s response to COVID-19 as “flat-footed”? So grave is this situation, that on March 8 The Washington Examiner —arguably America’s leading conservative publication— opined that COVID-19 “is exposing how deeply unsuited [Donald Trump] is to deal with a genuine crisis that he can’t bluff his way through”.

The American government’s tragically incompetent response to COVID-19 (at this point just slightly better than the Islamic Republic of Iran’s) hurts even more when one compares it with that of Taiwan —an island nation of 23 million, which the US often views as a client state. In January, when COVID-19 began making news headlines, experts predicted that Taiwan would end up with the world’s second-highest number of COVID-19 cases. This was primarily due to the country’s geographical proximity to mainland China —just 81 miles from the Chinese shore— as well as the extensive transportation network that links the two nations. Over 1.2 million Taiwanese either live permanently or work in China, while nearly 3 million Chinese citizens visit Taiwan every year. Even more ominously, the COVID-19 outbreak occurred right before the Lunar New Year, which is the busiest travel season for both Chinese and Taiwanese holidaymakers.

But Taiwan has managed to spectacularly defy all early predictions about a potential COVID-19 epidemic. As a group of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles, Stanford University, RAND Corporation and the Koo Foundation in Taiwan, explain in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the reason dates back to 2003. That year’s severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak prompted the Taiwanese government to establish the National Health Command Center (NHCC). Since then, the NHCC has operated as a central command system that coordinates the activities of Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center, the Biological Pathogen Disaster Command Center, the Counter-Bioterrorism Command Center, and the Central Medical Emergency Operations Center. Intelligence collected and analyzed by these centers is quickly distributed to central, regional and local authorities in all parts of the country.

The authors explain that, on December 31, the day when the World Health Organization notified national authorities of the first accounts of a severe pneumonia with unknown causes in the Chinese city of Wuhan, NHCC personnel began to board planes arriving from Wuhan. They began testing all passengers and crew on those planes for flu-like symptoms before allowing them to deplane. By January 5, NHCC personnel were reaching out to anyone who had traveled to Wuhan in the past fortnight and testing them for flu-like symptoms. By that time, the NHCC had already set up a nationwide toll-free hotline, which has since become decentralized to serve individual regions.

On January 27, the NHCC worked in collaboration with Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) to integrate the database containing the recent travel history of passengers with their NHIA identification card data. They also integrated the same database with national tourism and immigration data. Within 24 hours, the NHCC was reaching out to all citizens of Taiwan, as well as tourists and immigrants, who had traveled to the Wuhan region during the previous month. Using this big-data analytics approach, Taiwanese authorities were able to generate real-time alerts that were sent to individual doctors for use during clinical visits, so that clinical symptoms could be matched with patients’ travel histories.

Those who had traveled to regions of China that were considered high-risk, were immediately quarantined at home for 14 days. Their movements were tracked through their mobile phones to ensure compliance with quarantine instructions. Meanwhile, all those who exhibited flu-like symptoms but had tested negative for influenza in weeks prior, were re-tested for COVID-19.

Considering the above, it is hardly surprising that, by March 9, Taiwan —located just 81 miles off the coast of China— had just 45 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with a single death. Importantly, this is not because the Taiwanese are not testing their citizens —unlike the US or, even more outrageously, Turkey, which continues to report zero cases of COVID-19. Taiwan has tested more people than all of the nations of the Americas combined. The low number of COVID-19 cases in Taiwan is due to one thing, and one thing alone: a preemptive approach to the security of the nation by an enlightened leadership and a forward-thinking government system. Which is precisely what the US lacks at this grave time for the nation’s future.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is associate professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University in the United States.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 March 2020 | Permalink

US Pentagon insists it can continue to function despite COVID-19 outbreak

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has insisted that it can continue to function uninterrupted, despite claims by some media outlets that American military readiness may soon begin to degrade as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

During a press conference on Thursday, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he was “fully confident” that the Pentagon could perform its functions uninterrupted by the spread of the coronavirus. He added that he was expecting to receive a proposal early next week about how the Pentagon —the world’s largest office building, staffed by 20,000 employees— could prevent or mitigate the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, he said, the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center —designed for a nuclear attack— would be able to sustain the Department of Defense’s employees “for weeks at a time, if they have to be locked down inside the building if we have some type of outbreak”.

He did not comment on reports from last week, according to which senior American military commanders expressed concerns about the state of the country’s military readiness by the end of March. Late on Thursday, the US European Command announced the early termination of a joint military exercise that was underway in Israel, as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. A few days earlier, Pentagon officials canceled a joint military exercise in South Korea. Meanwhile, leading US defense contractor Lockheed Martin announced on Thursday that it had halted production at its F-35 plants in Italy and Japan. The company said that production at its factories in Texas continued uninterrupted.

Defense Secretary Esper said yesterday that the US military’s worldwide efforts on COVID-19 were being coordinated by US Norther Command, which was preparing for “short- and long-term scenarios, domestic and international situations”. He did not elaborate on that statement. Also on Thursday, the Pentagon announced that it had started administering coronavirus screenings to all new and potential recruits for all branches of the Armed Forces.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 March 2020 | Permalink

US intelligence agencies using ‘wide range’ of spy tools to monitor coronavirus

CDC AtlantaUnited States intelligence agencies are using “a wide range” of tools, ranging from open-source collection to communications interception and human intelligence, to collect desperately needed data about the spread of the coronavirus, according to sources. As of late last week, some of the most dependable data on the spread of the virus, known as COVID-19, came from military channels of information, according to Yahoo News’ National Security and Investigations Reporter Jenna McLaughlin.

Writing last Friday, McLaughlin cited “two sources familiar with the matter”, who said that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency’s Global Issues Mission Center were collecting and analyzing real-time data on the coronavirus. The spread of the disease was also being monitored by the National Center for Medical Intelligence, which assesses the impact of disease outbreaks on American and foreign military personnel, said McLaughlin. She added that the intelligence generated by these agencies was being channeled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, which lead the White House’s Task Force on COVID-19.

A major concern of the US Intelligence Community is that the Chinese, Iranian and other governments around the world may not be sharing comprehensive data on the spread of the virus and its impact. “No data means spying”, one unnamed source told McLaughlin. According to Reuters’ Mark Hosenball, US intelligence agencies have been using “a wide range of intelligence tools”, including human intelligence and electronic communications interception to track the spread of COVID-19. A major question that US intelligence agencies are trying to answer is whether governments like China’s or Iran’s have effective “continuity operations” plans in place, which relate to preserving the main functions of government during a major national disaster.

According to Hosenball, there is pessimism among US intelligence experts about the ability of developing countries around the world to respond to a massive COVID-19 outbreak. One example is India, whose dense population and rudimentary public-health infrastructure raises serious concerns about the government’s ability to protect the country’s population from a major pandemic. The report adds that there “deep concern” in US government circles about the possibility that Iran may be covering up the details about the spread of COVID-19.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 February 2020 | Permalink

Gas explosion reported at Russian research facility that houses Ebola and smallpox

Vector RussiaRussian authorities announced on Tuesday that a gas explosion had damaged a section of a medical facility in Siberia that houses live samples of viruses such as Ebola and smallpox, but added that there was no need to declare a biomedical emergency. The explosion reportedly took place on Monday at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector. The six-floor concrete and steel facility is located in the isolated Siberian town of Kotsovo, near the city of Novosibirsk, 600 miles from the Mongolian border.

Vector was founded in 1974 by the Soviet state to study mass infectious agents that could be used to build biological weapons. Today it remains as one of the world’s largest virology research centers, specializing in the treatment of some of the most lethal infectious diseases, such as Ebola, tularemia and swine flu. The Vector facility is believed to be one of two locations in the world that house live samples of the smallpox virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States city of Atlanta is also believed to house samples of the virus.

According to a statement issued on Tuesday by the Russian state-owned news agency TASS, the Vector facility sustained an explosion on Monday afternoon local time. The explosion was reportedly caused by a gas canister used by workers who were carrying out repairs at a sanitary inspection room located on the fifth floor of the Vector facility. An employee suffered unspecified injuries as a result of the explosion, according to the statement. However, “no work with biological agents was being carried out in the [Vector] building” at the time of the explosion, so there was no need for a state of emergency, according to the statement. Russian media reported on Tuesday that Vector personnel were present on the site and that no biological threat alerts had been issued.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 September 2019 | Permalink

Envelopes containing deadly ricin poison intercepted at US Pentagon

PentagonAn investigation was opened in the United States on Tuesday, after two envelopes containing the deadly poison ricin were intercepted at the Pentagon. The envelopes were reportedly intercepted at a mail screening facility located in the vicinity of the headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Washington, DC. One of the envelopes was addressed to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while the other was addressed to Admiral John Richardson, who serves as Chief of Naval Operations. According to US news media, the envelopes were found to contain a powder-like substance. Upon discovery, the envelopes were secured by members of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the US Department of Defense’s law enforcement body that is responsible for safeguarding the Pentagon complex.

On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that the substance inside the envelopes had been examined by its technicians and had tested positive for the deadly poison ricin. Ricin is a naturally occurring toxin found inside the seeds of castor oil plants, known commonly as castor beans. Though mostly harmless in its natural state, the toxin can be processed and effectively weaponized in the form of pellets, liquid acid, mist or powder. If it finds its way into the human body, through ingestion, inhalation or injection, it can kill in fewer than 48 hours. Death usually occurs as a result of organ failure and internal bleeding, which lead to a collapse of the circulatory system. There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning.

On Tuesday afternoon, parts of the Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign office in Houston, Texas, were shut down, after two staff members came in contact with what was described as a “white powdery substance” inside an envelope. The staff members were rushed to the hospital, but tests carried out later that day showed that the substance was non-toxic.

The FBI said on Tuesday that its technicians would carry out further tests on the substances found at the Pentagon and at Senator Cruz’s office, in order to confirm the initial findings. It also said that there would be no further announcements until the tests are completed. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s mail screening facility remains under quarantine.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 October 2018 | Permalink