NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
After more than a year of delays imposed by the Chinese government, a World Health Organization team probing the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic visited the suspect Wuhan Institute of Virology on Wednesday.
The WHO virology experts toured the institute’s secure laboratory that the Trump administration concluded was one of two potential sources for the virus, which has killed more than 2 million people during the pandemic.
A competing theory is that the virus was transmitted to a host animal and spread to humans at a Wuhan wild animal market. Investigators, however, have been unable to identify a possible host animal.
The WHO team met with the laboratory’s senior virology expert, Shi Zhengli, who has been dubbed the “Bat Woman of Wuhan” for her extensive research on bat coronaviruses similar to the virus that causes COVID-19.
“Extremely important meeting today with staff at WIV including Dr. Shi Zhengli. Frank, open discussion. Key questions asked & answered,” team member Peter Daszak said in a post on Twitter.
Mr. Daszak is a zoologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York group that in the past has conducted research at the WIV, including with Ms. Shi. He also is a vocal critic of the theory that the virus somehow leaked from the lab to the surrounding population.
“If the evidence is there, we will follow it,” he told NBC News.
The State Department, in the final days of the Trump administration, disclosed the first circumstantial evidence linking the institute to the deadly virus in a report made public Jan. 15. The report said the WIV came under suspicion after several lab workers were sickened with COVID-19-like symptoms in the autumn of 2019, prior to the first reported case of the pneumonialike disease.
The State Department report also said the institute has conducted research on a bat virus that is 96% similar to SARS-CoV-2, as the virus is called, and that studies were conducted on ways to make the virus more infectious to humans.
The report also contended that, contrary to claims of Ms. Shi and other institute officials, the Wuhan institute has conducted research for the Chinese military, including experiments on lab animals. China‘s military is suspected of having a covert biological weapons program, according to another State Department report made public last year.
“Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China‘s military,” the report said. “The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
The report said the United States and other donors that funded or collaborated on research at the WIV “have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.”
Any credible investigation into the virus origin requires complete and transparent access to the laboratories in Wuhan, including facilities, samples, personnel and records, the report said.
“As the world continues to battle this pandemic — and as WHO investigators begin their work, after more than a year of delays — the virus’s origin remains uncertain,” the report said.
Before the latest State Department report, several major media outlets routinely described the possibility of a lab leak of the virus as a “conspiracy theory.” A special task force of virology experts assembled by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been deadlocked over the question of the virus’ origin, according to government officials familiar with the group’s work.
As reported in this space Jan. 14, 70% of the experts on the task force believe the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab.
The Chinese government has not disclosed details of its findings into the origin of the virus. Instead, Beijing officials have claimed variously that the virus was introduced into China by the U.S. Army in November 2019 or originated in southern Europe. Chinese authorities also have floated the theory that the virus was imported on the surface of frozen food, an idea most virus experts have rejected as very unlikely.
Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, did not answer when asked about U.S. claims that the virus leaked from the WIV.
“Tracing the origin of the virus is a complex scientific issue, and we need to offer ample space for scientists to do their work,” he said.
The WIV contains China‘s sole high-security laboratory, one that was built by a French company.
The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Global Times quoted a source close to the lab as saying “the U.S. government has never provided one piece of verifiable evidence to support this hype about the coronavirus being leaked from the lab.”
China has experienced a lab leak in the past. The SARS virus leaked in 2003 and caused one death.
Asked what was learned during Wednesday’s lab visit, Thea Fischer, a Danish member of the WHO team, told reporters from her car as it left the institute: “Very interesting. Many questions.”
JOINT WAR GAMES ON GUAM INCLUDE F-35S
The U.S., Australian and Japanese air forces kicked off a series of military exercises this week that for the first time include advanced F-35 jet fighters. The exercises will include practice avoiding targeting by Chinese intermediate-range missiles.
Brig. Gen. Jeremy Sloane, commander of the 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, said the exercise will use a “hub-and-spoke network” — established airfields and “austere” short-runway airstrips.
The model “complicates the enemy’s targeting problem,” Gen. Sloane told Stars and Stripes, noting that China released a propaganda video in September simulating nuclear-capable bombers attacking a seaside air base.
“You look at the target that was presented during that video — it’s Andersen Air Force Base,” he said. “We look at ourselves sitting out here providing potentially an immense opportunity for U.S. and partner operations, but we’re also sitting out here as a tremendous target.”
The operations are being conducted under the Air Force’s new “agile combat employment,” or ACE, concepts.
Maj. Alison “Bandit” Romanko, an F-35 pilot and chief of future operations for the 356th Fighter Squadron, from the 354th Fighter Wing said the exercise will showcase the first PACAF deployment of the F-35s to the Indo-Pacific.
“It is an important step in the road to combat capability, and an opportunity to develop interoperability and forge ties with other pacific U.S. assets and our allies,” she told The Washington Times.
The Pacific Air Forces statement said ACE “allows for more flexibility by operating more freely with allies and partners throughout the Indo-Pacific, whether that be in a contested environment or in a location without established infrastructure, such as during times of crisis or disaster response.”
The warplanes will conduct operations on an airstrip on Guam that Gen. Sloane described as “carved out of the jungle.”
The jets will land, refuel, plan and launch from the small airfield surrounded by jungle. Similar operations by F-35s will be done at Palau International Airport and at a smaller island called Angaur, more than 800 miles from Guam.
The exercises at Andersen began Wednesday and will continue through Feb. 19.
The maneuvers will include “large force employment and combat air forces training,” along with humanitarian and disaster relief exercises, the Pacific Air Forces said.
The multinational task force in charge of what the military is calling Cope North 2021 is Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force and will seek to include “real world” scenarios, U.S. military officials said in a statement.
For the first time in the annual exercises, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, part of the 354 Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, are taking part. The jets will fly with seven Australian F/A-18 Hornets and Japanese and U.S. F-16s.
The war games are designed to improve interoperability of U.S., Australian and Japanese military forces, which have grown closer in response to increasing regional threats posed by China.
During the exercises, close air support and offensive and defensive counter air operations will be practiced. Aerial refueling also will be carried out. A total of 1,800 American airmen, Marines and sailors will take part along with 400 Japanese and Australians.
A total of 95 aircraft, including tankers, transports and intelligence planes, will be involved.
BLINKEN ON CHINA
The Biden administration has sounded tough on China and is promising to pursue policies similar to those adopted by the Trump administration.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he supports the previous State Department designation that China has engaged in “genocide” against ethnic Uighurs in western China, after Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Mr. Biden’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, questioned the legality of the designation.
The State Department also issued a statement mildly critical of China‘s recent air incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone.
Mr. Blinken was asked this week whether the United States would defend Taiwan from mainland attack and did not answer.
“There’s no doubt that China poses the most significant challenge to us of any other country, but it’s a complicated one,” he told MSNBC. “There are adversarial aspects to the relationship, there’s certainly competitive ones, and there’s still some cooperative ones, too. But whether we’re dealing with any of those aspects of the relationship, we have to be able to approach China from a position of strength, not weakness.”
Mr. Blinken said he will push for stronger alliances and taking a more active role in international institutions to counter Chinese influence.
The Biden administration policy is “standing up for our values when China is challenging them, including in Xinjiang against the Uighurs or democracy in Hong Kong; making sure that our military is postured so that it can deter Chinese aggression,” he said.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.