The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The Intelligence Community Prepares to Punt on COVID-19’s Origin

A technician works at a genetic testing laboratory of BGI in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, in 2018. (Stringer/Reuters)

On the menu today: A CNN report suggests that the U.S. intelligence community is preparing to shrug its shoulders and conclude that it can’t determine anything about the origin of COVID-19; America’s institutions fail to provide answers to the public when it needs them most; and the gap between what the president is saying and what is actually happening gets disturbingly wide.

We May Never Know COVID-19’s Origin

Gee, thanks a heap, U.S. intelligence community. From CNN:

Intelligence officials are nearing the end of a 90-day investigation into the origins of Covid-19 that was ordered by President Joe Biden and have drafted a classified report that is now in the preliminary review process, according to three sources familiar with the probe.

Sources familiar with the initial report say that after three months of poring over data and raw intelligence, the intelligence community is still divided over two theories — one suggesting the virus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China, and the other suggesting it jumped naturally to humans from animals, the sources said. The report as it stands now contains “nothing too earth shattering,” one source explained.

We knew there was little chance that this intelligence review was going to come out and say, “Yes, it was a lab leak,” and definitively resolve the question. But last week, CNN offered a report that indicated that the intelligence community had a promising lead, and it would take time to follow it to the end:

US intelligence agencies are digging through a treasure trove of genetic data that could be key to uncovering the origins of the coronavirus — as soon as they can decipher it.

This giant catalog of information contains genetic blueprints drawn from virus samples studied at the lab in Wuhan, China which some officials believe may have been the source of the Covid-19 outbreak, multiple people familiar with the matter tell CNN.

It’s unclear exactly how or when US intelligence agencies gained access to the information, but the machines involved in creating and processing this kind of genetic data from viruses are typically connected to external cloud-based servers — leaving open the possibility they were hacked, sources said.

Still, translating this mountain of raw data into usable information — which is only one part of the intelligence community’s 90-day push to uncover the pandemic’s origins — presents a range of challenges, including harnessing enough computing power to process it all. To do that, intelligence agencies are relying on supercomputers at the Department of Energy’s National Labs, a collection of 17 elite government research institutions.

There’s also a manpower issue. Not only do intelligence agencies need government scientists skilled enough to interpret complex genetic sequencing data and who have the proper security clearance, they also need to speak Mandarin, since the information is written in Chinese with a specialized vocabulary.

“Obviously there are scientists who are (security) cleared,” one source familiar with the intelligence told CNN. “But Mandarin-speaking ones who are cleared? That’s a very small pool. And not just any scientists, but ones who specialize in bio? So you can see how this quickly becomes difficult.”

Clearly, something in those genetic blueprints intrigues the intelligence community. Is it that they think one of those genetic blueprints drawn from virus samples studied at the Wuhan lab could match or be extraordinarily similar to — say, one mutation away from — the genetic blueprints drawn from the first cases of SARS-CoV-2?

Maybe. But if this CNN report is correct, the federal government’s finest and sharpest minds, and its best experts on China, will go back to the president and declare that, “For all we know, the emergence of a novel coronavirus most like those found in bats may have just coincidentally appeared right outside one of the three institutions in the world doing gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses in bats, the lab that our own people were operating unsafely. We have no idea what Jon Stewart is so fired up about.”

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, someone comfortably situated in government, a think-tank, academia, or the media, will write an op-ed or essay asking, “Why have Americans lost faith in their leaders and institutions?” And the op-ed will ignore, or barely mention, that 20 months after the pandemic started, the institutions assigned the duty of protecting us can’t even provide us with any clear answers of how we got into this calamity.

“How did the pandemic start?”

We don’t know.

“Is it safe to perform gain-of-function research on contagious viruses in the middle of a Chinese transportation and trade hub?”

We don’t know.

“Are wet markets ticking time bombs that offer the perfect environment for new viruses to jump from animals to people, and too dangerous to allow to continue operating?”

We don’t know.

“When did the Chinese government realize that it had a pandemic on its hands?”

We don’t know.

“How do we prevent the next pandemic?”

We don’t know.

The Continuing Adventures of ‘President Mr. Magoo’

Time for another round of “What President Biden Said Would Happen” vs. “What Is Actually Happening.”

What Biden said: Discussing Afghanistan, April 14: “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it — we’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely.”

What is happening: The Taliban has conquered ten provincial capitals, and continues to execute surrendering Afghan Army soldiers. The latest military assessment is that the Taliban will control Afghanistan within a few months. In conquered areas, the Taliban are going door to door, forcibly collecting twelve-year-old girls to be used as wives. The 20-year-anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is likely to be marked by the Taliban triumphantly returning to power. And U.S. “officials believe that a Taliban government in Afghanistan would not stop Al Qaeda from rebuilding and that it will eventually work toward attacks on foreign soil again.”

What Biden said: Discussing the Afghan army, July 9: “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.”

What is happening:Much of Afghanistan’s regular military surrendered to the Taliban or melted away, allowing the insurgents to seize nine of the country’s 34 provincial capitals and most of the countryside. . . . Special-operations commando units were the only part of Afghanistan’s U.S.-funded national security forces, theoretically numbering some 350,000 men, to consistently fight against the Taliban in recent weeks.”

What Biden said: Biden’s spokesman said in 2019 that, “He believes that we can secure our borders without abandoning our values.”

What is happening: After four months in which Customs and Border Protection agents encountered more than 170,000 migrants per month at the southern border, the number of encounters surpassed 200,000 in July. More than 1,000 migrants are being housed in a camp in McAllen, Texas, because they have tested positive for COVID-19.

What Biden said: Discussing inflation on July 19, President Biden insisted that, “The data shows that most of the price increases we’ve seen are — were expected and expected to be temporary. There’s nobody suggesting there’s unchecked inflation on the way — no serious economist.”

What is happening: In July, the Consumer Price Index rose 5.4 percent from a year earlier, in line with June’s figure and matching the largest jump since August 2008. What’s more, “Many economists expect higher inflation to persist for a while, though declining gradually. Those surveyed by The Wall Street Journal in July estimated on average that annual inflation, measured by the CPI, would slow to 4.1 percent in December.”

What Biden said: Discussing booster shots, July 29:I also know many of you are wondering if you’ll need a booster shot to add another layer of protection. As of now, my medical advisors say the answer is no. No American needs a booster now. But if the science tells us there’s a need for boosters, then that’s something we’ll do.”

What is happening: The FDA is “poised to amend the emergency use authorizations for the Pfizer and the Moderna Covid-19 vaccines Thursday to allow people with compromised immune systems to get a third dose. . . . The move would come after a panel of advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention met in July and urged action on extra doses for immunocompromised adults. Doctors say it is increasingly clear that many such patients are still vulnerable to Covid following vaccination because they may not mount an effective immune response to the shots.”

What Biden said: In an op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine, January 23, 2020: “As president, I will elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy. I will reinvest in the diplomatic corps, which this administration has hollowed out, and put U.S. diplomacy back in the hands of genuine professionals.”

What is happening: “More than six months into Biden’s administration, only one of his ambassadors to another country has been confirmed,” NPR reports. “There’s no other country in the world, I think, probably that has ever had 80 vacant ambassadorships at one time,” said Ambassador Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomatic corps’ union. “And while I’m quite sure it’s not intended to be a signal of disrespect or lack of commitment to engagement with other countries, it can come across that way after a point.”

But I’m sure this can all be fixed with more speeches from the president declaring that “America is back!” and “declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”

ADDENDUM: A sharp observation from Phil Klein:

The deeper reason the Left is so eager to see DeSantis fail is that they don’t want to believe that they disrupted over a year of their lives following restrictions that may turn out to have been unnecessary. It’s comforting to believe that all of their sacrifices — forgoing vacations, missing meetings with friends and family, depriving their kids of in-person school, masking, and so on — served the noble goal of saving lives. It’s much harder to accept that it may not have made much of a difference. In an age when a crazy virus can come out of nowhere and wreak havoc, it’s human nature for people to want to feel as though they can assert control over it.

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