Why the United States almost certainly did not know about coronavirus in November
Last week, two separate news agencies claimed that American intelligence was aware of a public health emergency in Wuhan from November.
On Wednesday 8 April, ABC News claimed that America’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) filed an intelligence report in November 2019. Using ‘wire and computer intercepts, coupled with satellite images’, the report highlighted evidence of an ‘out-of-control disease’ in Wuhan and the possibility of a ‘cataclysmic event’.
According to ABC, the NCMI’s intelligence report was repeatedly forwarded to the federal government and the National Security Council at the White House throughout December, before landing on President Donald Trump’s desk in early January. By then, the world already knew about a viral outbreak in Wuhan through the World Health Organization.
Senior officials were quick to deny ABC’s report, which came from four unnamed sources. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that he was ‘not aware’ of any such report being presented to the National Security Council in December. The NCMI issued a rare, unrequested public statement stating that ‘media reporting about the existence/release of a [NCMI] Coronavirus-related product/assessment in November of 2019 is not correct. No such NCMI product exists.’
General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the agency had reviewed all the evidence it could find from November and December. It found no relevant reports from China until late December, with the first intelligence reports arriving in January. Asked about ABC’s report, Trump denied learning about the gravity of the situation until late January. He labelled it ‘Fake News’.
A second report from NBC News followed on Thursday 9 April, sourced from three former and current officials. NBC’s article also claimed that raw intelligence was collected in November, but rather than being fed into a formal assessment, it was compiled into a ‘situation report’. As such, the NCMI could deny the existence of any ‘product/assessment’.
Why it’s probably not true
Naturally, many commentators have rushed to defend whichever side fits their prior convictions – whether that’s pro-Trump or anti-Trump – irrespective of these declarations.
My best guess is that we should treat these news reports with extreme caution. Even if they are true, there are good reasons to be suspicious about them and their significance.
My first question – to which I don’t know the answer – is whether American intelligence is interested in Chinese public health. If it routinely monitors public health at the local level in China, then a briefing about public health in Wuhan becomes much more credible, whether or not it noted anything suspicious. If American intelligence doesn't, the briefing becomes unlikely.
However, let’s assume that the news reports are right, and walk through a series of possibilities.
H1: The United States knew about a viral outbreak.
Neither of the news reports details what the intelligence briefing supposedly noted. However, whatever raw evidence was collected, it almost certainly would not have recognised a viral outbreak.
Bacterial and fungal infections can cause pneumonia, with bacteria being the most common cause. Therefore, local doctors did not suspect a viral outbreak until mid-December. Indeed, at least one early suspected case was diagnosed with fungal pneumonia.
Even the 31 December notification to the WHO warned of a ‘pneumonia of unknown etiology (unknown cause)’. The virus was not sequenced and isolated until between 27 December and 3 January.
Therefore, any intelligence briefing would almost certainly not have recognised the outbreak of a novel virus. If anything, it would likely have merely described COVID-19’s symptoms, which do not necessarily suggest a viral infection. [That is, unless someone already knew about the virus and this was intercepted in communications.]
H2: The United States knew about an imminent public health emergency.
There are reasons to doubt that American intelligence would have recognised COVID-19’s symptoms. Surveillance data from two large and representative Wuhan hospitals show no abnormal number of influenza-like cases until the second week of December (see graph). This suggests that surveillance of hospital activity in November would not have picked up an unusual number of pneumonia cases.
Perhaps the intelligence briefing merely warned of increased observed general sickness. This also seems unlikely. By 3 January, over a month after the supposed intelligence briefing, Wuhan reported only 44 cases. Would reports of unexpected sickness from less than 50 people in a city of 11 million residents be sufficiently noticeable or suspicious to suspect a ‘cataclysmic event’? It seems improbable.
Neither of the two news reports provides any date for the alleged briefing. Therefore, if they are true, American intelligence became suspicious of public health activity in Wuhan at least almost two weeks ahead of local doctors and officials.
That seems implausible – unless everyone knew earlier than they claim. What data would American intelligence possibly have on public health in Wuhan that local doctors did not have? If some metric of public health concern were noticeably different in November, wouldn’t this be cause for alarm for the local health board before it would be remotely noteworthy for American intelligence?
It could be as embarrassing for Wuhan’s doctors and officials as much as for America if any intelligence briefing does exist.
Did the United States know about today's global pandemic in November? - Almost certainly not.
Did the United States know about coronavirus in November? – Almost certainly not.
Did it know about a viral outbreak in November? – Almost certainly not.
Was there American intelligence about public health in Wuhan in November? – It's possible but denied by the highest echelons of officials.
If there was, could that intelligence have picked up early signs of the outbreak? – It’s highly unlikely.
If it did, could that intelligence have picked up early signs of the outbreak that were recognised as early signs at the time? Again, it's highly unlikely.
If the news reports are false, they could feasibly be disinformation from sources in the intelligence community with a motive against the administration, or from sources who aren’t whom they say they are.
Of course, this won’t satisfy those who maintain the conspiracy theory that America planted the virus. This allegation has been repeated by senior Chinese ambassadors as well as a spokesman for the Foreign Minister. A version of this story is that America brought the virus to China through the Wuhan Military World Games in October, a month before the reported intelligence briefing.
When did the United States know?
If the pandemic was ever controllable, that suggests that even in the almost impossible case that American intelligence did know about the coronavirus in November, it was by no means certain that it should have started preparing for the global pandemic of today.
The crucial dates when that assessment changed seem to be between 21 and 23 January, between which the CCP admitted that the virus was transmissible between humans and locked down Wuhan. Accompanied by new epidemiological data, those events decisively shifted Western perceptions of how well the CCP was combatting the virus and heightened fears of a pandemic. The WHO’s emergency committee split on declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 23 January, then declared it on 30 January. On 31 January, America declared a Public Health Emergency and closed its borders to travellers from Hubei. The CCP accused the United States of “creat[ing] and spread[ing] fear’”.
An earlier article by The Washington Post argued that American intelligence reports on the virus came through January and February. However, The Washington Post said that these reports did not recommend any action or suggest when the virus would reach the United States: this was outside their mandate.
As aforementioned, the administration confirmed having received intelligence reports by January, but by then the international community knew that the virus existed.
Ludwig Liberty is a pseudonym attributed to all anonymous contributors to our blog.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily of the Oxford Hayek Society.