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Is Covid-19 Zoonotic, Natural or Lab-engineered?

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President Trump led the US government propaganda that Coronavirus originated in WIV. However, even after twelve months the US government failed to provide factual or scientific evidence. Now, the Biden administration, inspired by the “dark web,” has tasked the US intelligence community to produce evidence in 90 days to establish that COVID-19 had no “natural ancestors.” As half the world’s scientific community is busy speculating, a simple forensic investigation is what is needed to find the answer.

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“Throw enough dirt, and some will stick”  – Thomas Boghardt, Historian

Recently, there has been growing renewed interest in Coronavirus “lab leak” hypothesis. One can only speculate if more recent revelations of the presence of coronavirus in the US in mid-December 2019 – weeks before the first confirmed case was announced on January 21, 2020, would impact Wuhan lab leak controversy. But thanks to Trump’s “anti-China xenophobia,” for past whole year the leak theory was sidelined in public scientific debate in the US. As Covid-19 was turning into a global pandemic, the lab leak hypothesis got stuck in “hyper-politicized context.” Looking to inject fresh energy in his ongoing anti-China rhetoric with eyes on the November presidential vote, President Trump began “instrumentalizing the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) lab leak theory and even called it “China Virus” and “Kung Flu.” According to media reports, such pernicious intertwining of anti-China rhetoric and the xenophobic framing of the pandemic “caused an apparent chilling effect among the scientific community.”

During the past twelve months, science writers mocked and some even condemned anyone claiming lab leak origins of Coronavirus. Now, same lot among these writers and a few more joining them afresh, have lately been saying that Coronavirus may well have originated in a lab in Wuhan. As The New Yorker’s veteran political editor Amy Davidson Sorkin observed last Sunday, with President Biden entering the battle over the coronavirus lab-leak theory “the debate about the origin of the pandemic has become loud, contentious, and infused with politics.”  A rare Chinese commentary even alleged the Biden administration’s call for a fresh probe into the origins of Covid-19 is inspired by the latest “explosive” new study by two European scholars claiming that “Chinese scientists created the virus in Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) laboratory.”

What has changed for these science writers? If we go by what author and activist David Swanson says, nothing really. Swanson, who is also a popular radio host, thinks the latest change in the stance of the scientific community is largely a question of fashion. (Emphasis added) Indirectly attributing the “new outlook” of the scientists to the fresh call coming from the White House, Swanson wrote in a recent article “One doesn’t wear a wrong outfit too early in the season, or explore the wrong epidemiological idea when the White House is claimed by one Party or the other.” In fact, Swanson refused to be persuaded by the fact that the virus jumping out of the Wuhan lab was cause enough to condemn or “hate” China. Why?

Swanson offers two reasons. First, the bogey that the virus was created by Chinese scientists engaged in “Gain of Function” (GoF) project. Further elaborating on “Gain of Function” projects, Sorensen told DailyMail.com in an interview recently, GoF research involves “tweaking natural viruses to make them more infectious” and had been outlawed by former US President Barack Obama. Although denying the money US invested in WIV had gone into GoF projects, Dr. Antony Fauci told US lawmakers just the other day that the US National Institute of Health funded WIF with $600,000 between 2015 and 2021. So, instead of limiting one’s hatred for China, if China is a military threat, then why fund its bioweapons research? Swanson asked. Indeed, extremely pertinent question!

The other reason Swanson did not consider Coronvirus lab leak theory worthy of condemnation has much to do with the issue of censorship surrounding the whole topic of bioweapons in the US. For example, no one is supposed to know what is common knowledge anyway that the 2001 Anthrax attacks originated with material from a US bio- weapons lab. Or that Lyme disease which affects 400,000 Americans every year spread from a US bioweapons lab. Therefore, for Swanson, plausibility of a lab leak, even if never proven, is a new good reason to shut down all the world’s bioweapons labs. It is beyond comprehension why all those for probing the coronavirous lab leak origin are silent and have not demanded a ban on all the world’s bioweapons labs! (Emphasis added)

But why even after one and a half year since Covid-19 was detected in Wuhan, its source of origin remains a mystery? What about the WHO probe? Perhaps a calculated decision, or maybe not, as soon as President Trump exited the White House, the WHO sent a much awaited investigative team of seventeen experts to Wuhan. After spending four weeks in the “city of silence,” during which the team visited the laboratory, the WHO scientists concluded the lab-leak theory was “extremely unlikely.” But in a bizarre twist, even the so-called “China-centric” WHO chief Tedros surprised everyone and angered China, when speaking in Geneva two months ago he said “although the [WHO scientific] team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation.”    

On the other hand, China, as expected has repeatedly denied WIV was responsible for the lab leak and insisted that the virus emerged naturally or that it was zoonotic. In fact, by refusing to be either transparent or cooperative in sharing information, Beijing has only furthered global backlash against China’s antagonistic policies. China’s foreign ministry hitting back at the US as Biden ordered to revisit Wuhan lab leak theory is the latest example of its “wolf-warrior” attitude. China’s official media is no different. A month before the Wall Street Journal renewed media onslaught against Beijing in May end, official Chinese news broadcaster CGTN stated: “With Trump gone, the lab leak hypothesis is now acceptable. This plays into both an old Orientalist trope as well as a modern Sinophobic one to manufacture consent for America’s hybrid war against China.”

Though not officially declared a “taboo” subject, the op-ed commentaries have been scarce and few and far between on the WIV lab leak theory in China. A recent signed commentary jointly written by a seasoned India watcher who uses pen name “countryside Brahmin” and South Asian affairs expert Gao Xirui, strongly challenged May 26 executive order by President Biden. The commentary also ridiculed India for “piggy riding” America in the latest lab leak theory hype. The authors attributed Biden’s renewed interest in WIV lab leak to the recent study published in the science journal Quarterly Review of Biophysics Discovery by two European scientists, cited in the early part of this article.

Earlier on in August last year, WIV scientists had again refuted the leak theory. Speaking to the NBC News from the US which became the first foreign news agency to get access to the laboratory, Wang Yanyi, the WIV director had said: “None of the institute’s scientists contracted the virus, which made it extremely unlikely that the pathogen could have escaped from the facility.” NBC News in its report claimed WIV had been targeted because it was equipped to study the world’s “highest-risk infectious agents and toxins, like the latest coronavirus.” More recently, a GT editorial described President Biden ordering fresh probe as indulging in a bigger gamble against China than even Trump.  “No matter what Biden has in mind, the US government is generally up to something big against China,” the edit said.

As the flip-flop on the “leak theory” in the US continues, the narrative is not only inconclusive but still unfolding. Just as this write-up was near closing, the Financial Times reported researchers in the US fear “decades of fortuitous partnership” between the USA and P R China is under threat, all thanks to Wuhan lab row. “Beginning 2004, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed an agreement with the Chinese National Influenza Centre to help China improve its analysis of seasonal flu strains.  Scientists are now worried this type of collaboration is under threat, imperiled by mutual suspicions which have been exacerbated by the recent row over whether Covid-19 could have come from a lab leak in Wuhan,” the FT reported. Over the next decade, the US trained nearly 2,500 Chinese scientists and helped open dozens of laboratories in the country, the report added.    

Finally, according to Richard Ebright, “little has changed in terms of scientific evidence since the genome sequence of the virus was first released in January of 2020.” Ebright is one of 21 international scientists who detailed what a full, interdisciplinary investigation in Wuhan should look like in an open letter last March. At the same time, security analysts and think tank scholars in the US believe the new administration is forced to chase “lab leak” theory as “Biden doesn’t want to look ‘weak on China’.” Meanwhile, as China’s media is comparing the lab leak theory with the infamous “washing powder” lie about the WMDs in Iraq, professor Ebright has inadvertently replied to the New Yorker’s demand to find real answers. “The coronavirus origin can be answered through a forensic investigation, not a scientific speculation,” Ebright averred.   

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success

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This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.

The indictment of businessman Thomas  J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.

It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.

A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.

The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.

The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.

In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.

The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”

Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.

“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.

The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.

Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.

Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.

The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.

In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.

Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.

“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.

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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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