May 7, 2020

Axios World

Happy Thursday evening and welcome back to Axios World.

  • Tonight we're chasing "patient zero," sorting out the worst invasion in history, and wishing Vladimir Putin a happy anniversary, all in a brisk 1,588 words (6 minutes).

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1 big thing: Pompeo's hunt for Wuhan's "patient zero"

The Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty

The Trump administration’s ongoing offensive over China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic now centers on one question: Who was “patient zero”?

Why it matters: China hawks in Washington accuse Beijing of inflicting death and economic destruction upon the world with their lack of transparency around the coronavirus outbreak. They’re on a mission to trace that story back to the beginning, when the first human was infected.

The U.S. intelligence community and scientists like Anthony Fauci say there’s now enough evidence to conclude that the virus evolved naturally, putting to rest claims that it was some sort of bioweapon.

That leaves two remaining theories:

  1. The virus naturally jumped from an animal to a human, perhaps at a wet market in Wuhan. This is the most prominent theory.
  2. The virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists had been conducting experiments on coronaviruses. This theory has been pushed by President Trump and, with particular vigor, by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo’s case, made in a press conference on Wednesday and a series of media interviews, is the following:

  1. There is “enormous evidence” the virus originated at the lab in Wuhan.
  2. There’s no “certainty” that it did.
  3. There might be certainty if China allowed investigators into the lab, but they’re denying access, which suggests a cover-up.

Between the lines:

  • U.S. and allied intelligence sources, in leaks to several news outlets, have dismissed the “enormous evidence” as a hawkish interpretation of publicly available information about the work the lab does and previous safety concerns.
  • “My conclusion is that there’s absolutely no smoking gun intelligence to suggest that it came from the lab, because these guys would have leaked it,” says Chris Johnson, a former top CIA China analyst who now heads the China Strategies Group consulting firm.
  • The “chatter” collected from China — perhaps from Chinese officials speculating about the origins of the virus — “could be interpreted as circumstantial evidence," Johnson says. "But it’s all about how you want to shape it."
  • As for China’s alleged cover-up, James Palmer of Foreign Policy notes, “The [Chinese Communist Party] behaves this way all the time. Whatever the origins of the coronavirus, the party would refuse access.”

Where things stand:

  • America’s Five Eyes intelligence allies are not convinced by Pompeo’s argument, Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports.
  • The Australian government believes the virus most likely originated in a wet market and gives the lab theory a 5% probability.
  • U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating the theory, though. Johnson says that's "a conclusion in search of evidence," with "eerie undertones to earlier periods,” like the lead-up to the Iraq War.

Worth noting: Anger with China over its lack of transparency isn’t limited to those who believe the virus began in a lab.

  • Johnson says the administration would have "a much stronger hand" if it focused on "this inconvenient six days when the leadership clearly knew they had something bad on their hands and didn’t tell anyone — their own public or the world."
2. The curve won't bend

Other countries — even some hit hard by the coronavirus — are beating back their outbreaks more successfully than the U.S., Axios' Caitlin Owens and I write.

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Why it matters: The number of new cases every day is holding steady in the U.S., but it's not going down — a key benchmark many other countries achieved before loosening their lockdowns and social distancing measures.

  • The number of new cases is an imperfect metric because the rate of testing is also increasing — so the number of confirmed cases can spike even if the scope of the outbreak isn’t getting a lot worse.
  • Still, there's little reason to believe the U.S. has turned a corner in the way several European countries have.

In some of Europe’s hardest-hit countries, case counts seemed to skyrocket uncontrollably even amid some of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

  • Italy and Spain followed a similar pattern. New cases climbed over about a month from under 100 per day to terrifying peaks (roughly 8,000/day in Spain and 6,000/day in Italy).
  • The fall was nearly as sharp. Within two weeks of the peak, the rates of daily recorded cases had been halved. They’ve continued to fall since.
  • Other hard-hit countries like France have followed a similar trajectory, though the U.K. — which now has the highest official death toll in Europe — has yet to do so.

America’s daily rate climbed faster and higher (due in part to its larger population), but appeared to have peaked at around 30,000 new cases per day in the first week of April.

  • But rather than falling, the rate stagnated. Outside of New York (which has bent its curve), the rate is actually continuing to climb.

The big picture: “It seems that this is a controllable pandemic without it having to run its natural course,” says Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs.

  • "About 1.7 billion people live in countries where this is under control at least provisionally,” he notes, mostly in East Asia and the Pacific.
  • That club appears to be growing, but the U.S. is not currently on track to join it.

Go deeper

3. State of the outbreak: Testing treatments

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Researchers are racing to develop treatments based on antibodies to block or neutralize the coronavirus in patients, with the hopes these could be ready for possible emergency use by the fall, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: Many experts feel antibodies from recovered patients and synthesized antibody drugs could be important bridge treatments for COVID-19 during the months or years until a successful vaccine is available.

As for the vaccine... the question of whether to deliberately infect volunteers to test vaccines for COVID-19 is being hotly debated by scientists, ethicists and lawmakers, writes Axios' Alison Snyder.

The big picture: Controlled human infection studies have been used for centuries to evaluate vaccine doses and candidates for influenza, norovirus and other diseases.

  • But COVID-19, with its severity, novelty and unknowns, presents thorny questions.

Flashback: Challenge studies were used nearly 300 years ago to test the first efforts to stop the spread of smallpox.

  • The studies would raise eyebrows today: In exchange for a pardon, condemned prisoners were exposed to a small dose of smallpox that gave them a mild case of the disease and then lifelong immunity.
  • Then, when Princess Caroline of Wales wanted to immunize her children, orphans were first inoculated to test the safety of the approach.

Go deeper

4. South America: The worst invasion in history

Maduro with loot seized from the attackers. Miraflores Presidential Palace/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The invasion force planned to slip into Venezuela in teams, make contact with paramilitaries and potential turncoats, and eventually take Nicolás Maduro by force.

  • That plan collided with reality before they even reached the shore. Now, two U.S. special forces veterans are in Venezuelan custody.

How it happened: Sunday’s botched invasion was organized by Jordan Goudreau, a former Green Beret who runs a Florida-based security firm. He has claimed the mission was backed by Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader.

  • Guaidó denied that, but the Washington Post reports that members of the opposition did sign a deal with Goudreau last October “to capture/detain/remove Nicolás Maduro … and install the recognized Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó.”
  • The Post reports that the relationship broke down months ago, and Guaidó’s allies “considered the operation dead.”

The operation was as leaky as it was amateurish.

  • The AP reported on the plot days before it was put into action, and Maduro has claimed to have known everything about it — down to "what they ate and drank."

Fernando Cutz, a former South America director on the National Security Council, says this all sounds like something you’d hear in South Florida’s growing “anti-Maduro bubble.”

  • “It seems to me that this is what happens when the bubble goes wrong. When you start to believe too many of these stories you hear while you’re drinking an espresso at the bakery in Doral.”
  • “That Maduro is already on his way out, and 100% of Venezuelans are against him, and the moment one American savior shows up with a gun the people will rally in the streets and remove him by force.”
5. Global news roundup

Duterte spars with the media during a press conference. Photo: Manman Dejeto/AFP via Getty

1. Poland will delay Sunday’s presidential election following objections over the last-minute switch to postal voting and the inability of the opposition to campaign due to COVID-19.

  • Incumbent Andrzej Duda was expected to win easily, and the ruling Law and Justice party doesn't want a long delay. A new date hasn't been set.

2. The Philippines' telecommunications commission shut down the country's largest TV network on Tuesday, the latest step by President Rodrigo Duterte's government to put pressure on major media outlets.

3. Iraq has at last sworn in a new government, to be led by former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

  • He’s the third pick for prime minister since Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned amid protests five months ago, and the first to swear in a government.
  • He’ll have to balance the interests of protesters, elites, America and Iran.

4. Cocaine traffickers are hurting during this global pandemic because dwindling cargo shipments make it harder to smuggle drugs, according to the UN.

  • More cocaine is being intercepted, and a supply glut is growing in Colombia.
  • The cartels will have to adapt and compete for new routes. The UN predicts the big will muscle out the small.
  • Dealers, meanwhile, are benefiting from higher prices on the street.
6. One giving thing

In 1847, the Choctaw people raised $17o for families suffering through Ireland’s potato famine.

  • That gesture is remembered in Ireland not for its size, but for the sense of solidarity it showed just 15 years after the tribe lost thousands of lives along the Trail of Tears.
  • Now, a flood of donations from Ireland has pushed a GoFundMe campaign for Native American tribes struggling during the coronavirus crisis over $3 million.
7. Stories we're watching

Sunrise at Rio's Copacabana Beach. Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

  1. Scoop: Pompeo planning trip to Israel despite virus restrictions
  2. Israel's high court allows Netanyahu to form government
  3. Highlights from Ratcliffe's DNI confirmation hearing
  4. Governments pressured to save local news
  5. U.K. coronavirus scientist resigns after breaking lockdown rules
  6. WHO members to discuss Taiwan's status
  7. Beijing demanded praise in exchange for medical supplies


"We have proved that Russia is becoming a truly modern democratic state. The peaceful succession of power is the crucial element of the political stability we have dreamed of, to which we have aspired and which we have sought."
— Vladimir Putin in his first inaugural address, 20 years ago today

Go deeper: Special report — 20 years of Putin