US Department of Homeland Security operations center relocates due to COVID-19

DHSThe National Operations Center of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is relocating to an emergency facility after a member of its staff tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The information was revealed on Monday by Yahoo News, which said it obtained the information in an internal DHS document.

The DHS National Operations Center facility is housed in the west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a National Historic Landmark built in 1855, which is currently being redeveloped as the new headquarters of the DHS. It operates as the DHS’ main coordination hub for managing and sharing local- and national-level information relating to terrorist threats and other emergency incidents.

For a number of days now, the DHS has placed restrictions on access to the National Operations Center, in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, according to Yahoo News, a member of staff who works at the National Operations Center facility has now been diagnosed with having the virus. The news website said it found the information in “an internal DHS document” that it obtained, which is dated March 30. The document is entitled “COVID-19 Placemat” and contains a daily amalgamation of data points relating to if and how various US government agencies have been affected by the pandemic.

Yahoo News said a DHS official confirmed that the National Operations Center would be relocating “to an alternate facility […] as a precaution”. In the meantime the St. Elizabeths Hospital facility would be cleaned and sanitized, said the official, and added that the relocation would “not impact operations”. The “COVID-19 Placemat” did not identify the emergency facility that the National Operations Center personnel will be relocating to, said Yahoo News. But the news website noted that all US government agencies have remote facilities for use in a national emergency, “ranging from nuclear attack to pandemic”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 March 2020 | Permalink

Trump administration considering mass expulsions of alleged Chinese spies

United States ChinaThe administration of United States President Donald Trump is considering the possibility of expelling from the country dozens of Chinese diplomats, journalists, and others, who are believed to be undercover spies. The expulsions relate to a spiraling information war between Washington and Beijing, which has erupted in recent weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced that it would expel 13 American journalists from three major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Beijing also stipulated that all American news organizations operating in China had to provide its government with detailed information about their financial assets, employee structure and other organizational information. The journalists claimed that they were expelled for trying to report about the status of the COVID-19 pandemic inside China.

Around the same time, President Trump and senior members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, began referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, known as novel coronavirus) as “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus”. The term refers to the Chinese province where the virus is believed to have originated. President Trump claims that he decided to use the term “Chinese virus” in response to unsubstantiated claims by government officials in Beijing that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by members of the US military.

On Thursday The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering expelling from the US a large number of Chinese citizens who work as diplomats or journalists. In some cases, the White House is reportedly considering shutting down the bureaus of some Chinese media outlets in the US. According to a number of administration officials, many Chinese journalists based in the US are in reality undercover intelligence officers, who regularly report to the Ministry of State Security —China’s primary external intelligence agency. Some of these alleged undercover intelligence officers —known in the world of intelligence as ‘non-official cover’— are allegedly embedded with China Global Television Network, the foreign-language arm of the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), according to some American officials.

On March 2, the Trump administration abruptly imposed quotas on the number of foreign citizens who are permitted to work for Chinese media organizations in the US. The Chinese media groups complied with the new directive in a timely manner, by recalling over 60 of their staff members to China. However, the White House now believes that a significant number of the 100 Chinese journalists who continue to operate in the US are undercover intelligence officers.

Meanwhile, on March 25, China’s English-language government-owned newspaper The Global Times raised eyebrows by repeating allegations that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by an American cyclist, who visited Wuhan in October of last year to compete in the Military World Games. Such allegations, which propagate the view that the novel coronavirus originated in the US, are quickly growing in popularity in Chinese social media platforms.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 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

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

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