Did the Intelligence Community see this pandemic coming?

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To a certain cadre of thinkers, the coronavirus crisis is no surprise. For example, the National Intelligence Council accurately predicted it back in 2004, and in report after report after that. Paul Miller has reviewed the literature, and wonders how the government, nearly all governments, could have ended up so unprepared. He is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He joined the  Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Miller, good to have you on.

Paul Miller: Thanks for having me on the show.

Tom Temin: So you have written a review of your review of all of this literature going back more than a decade. And what’s the overall picture you’ve gotten with respect to what we might have known or should have known?

Paul Miller:  The overall picture is that the United States intelligence community got this one right. Starting about 15-16 years ago, the intelligence community began to warn about the possibility, even the probability of a global pandemic that could derail economic globalization and lead to political upheaval. It started to warn, in its quadrennial global trends, reports that the National Intelligence Council writes every four years, but also the director of national intelligence briefed this to Congress every single year since 2008. So there has been a drumbeat of warnings from the intelligence community about this possibility for over a decade.

Tom Temin: So that covers three administrations, then, that basically had other things they worried about more, let’s put it that way.

Paul Miller:  That’s correct.

Tom Temin: And what do you understand the intelligence community to be saying now, Do we know have any idea? I mean, they’re not coming out there and saying we told you so, but what kinds of data and sources did they have that they used to inform these types of reports?

Paul Miller:  Well, initially, in the global trends reports, the intelligence community was sketching an outline of what the future might look like a decade or two from now. And when they looked out over 20 years, they knew that there was a possibility of a pandemic emerging from China, about which we would have very little warning and no immunity. They knew this because the SARS epidemic had just arose back in 2002 and they saw SARS as a harbinger of things that might come, so they knew this was a possibility. And they said within the next 20 years. It’s highly unlikely that this might happen at some point in the next 20 years, by the way, they just happened to pick year 2020. And it was pretty remarkable they did so. As they continue to write these warnings year after year, they grew more specific, they grew more detailed in their envisioning of what the future might look like, again isolating China as the likely point of origin and outlining all of the reasons why we’d be extremely vulnerable to this pandemic, from our failures of surveillance to government’s hesitancy to act fast and so forth. They also saw the economic repercussions of this pretty well. So that’s how they started to envision this. Does that answer your question?

Tom Temin: I think so. And what is it about China that gave them this kind of prescience? Is it what they eat? Is it just because there’s more Chinese people than almost any other country, I guess maybe, except for India?

Paul Miller:  Yeah, both of those things play into it. Look, infectious diseases spread in conditions of great population density. And that, of course, is true in China, which is second-most populous country in the world. Couple that with the growth in urbanization in China, the pushing out of urban areas, breaking into new environments where the wildlife had heretofore been undisturbed. And their lack of regulation of these so-called wet markets. China if I’m not mistaken is where the annual flu virus comes from anyway. We always know that the flu kind of starts there and then sweeps across the globe. It’s very predictable. And so the fact that some other virus might emerge particularly from the bat population is not unknown, it’s not unpredictable. It is not out of the ordinary, but we knew that this might happen. We knew it had happened with SARS. And so it was only a matter of time before it happened on a bigger scale.

Tom Temin: And it’s probably fair to say there were scientists outside of the intelligence community that were concerned about the desire or the drive of bacteria and viruses to want to survive when they are driven out of the animal habitat that they’ve been comfortably in. And they sort of find new hosts and the most populous host is us.

Paul Miller:  That’s right and and the intelligence community is not the only one that made this call. I believe there had been similar warnings from the World Health Organization, and some academic papers have been circulated in recent weeks that show that scholars and other health experts knew about this, and were warning about this in recent years. So the intelligence community again, I want to give them credit for getting it right. But they got it right in part because they were able to draw on the work of other experts, of scientists and doctors and epidemiologists who all saw that this could come.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Paul Miller, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. And there’s a lot of vague charges going all around, of course politics always comes into these things. The government didn’t do this, the government didn’t do that. What specifically might policy have dictated differently than is the case now that we’re in the midst of all of this?

Paul Miller:  Well better surveillance, for one. One of the specific warnings the intelligence community gave is that the United States lacked the ability to conduct disease surveillance around the world. It did not have good early warning signals set up. You know, for example, we have satellites that circle the earth and look at the – we are able to keep track of foreign armies because we don’t want another Pearl Harbor. But we lack the same kind of equipment or the same kind of systems or infrastructure to detect novel diseases around the world. The intelligence community warned about that. So we need to set up better, infectious disease surveillance systems. I don’t mean just like pieces of technology, I also mean institutions and experts who are commissioned to be prepared against the stuff. We also need a better stockpile of medical equipment that we can surge in case of crisis. We right now see the case with our lack of ventilators. I see that the United States did try to fix that problem within the last decade and simply failed. It was unable to … the bureaucratic and commercial obstacles to manufacturing enough ventilators and keep them in reserve. So things like that would be common sense policy fixes to prevent this from recurring. I do think there’s a case to be made for greater transparency in government, not just speaking here but of the Chinese government and other authoritarian governments. They have a practice of lying, of deceit, of trying to deny reality. The Chinese government specifically tried to hide information about this virus when it first emerged last year, November, December and January, before they finally came forth and owned up to it and shared information with the World Health Organization. And they’ve tried to, again deny their own record of denial. But that sort of official policy of deceit and deception hurts the world. We’ve seen the cause of that. It delayed the whole world response to this virus by several months and turned it into a global pandemic. So some governance reform is certainly in order as well.

Tom Temin: Now the military is lending or giving much of its capacity to the civilian side of government. Could the fact that that capacity is available to give or loan, could it indicate that the military itself was better aware of what might happen? Because, after all, the intelligence community warnings go to the military also.

Paul Miller:  The military is poised, is supposed to be poised to respond to any kind of emergency or crisis. Remember, the military has long participated in humanitarian relief operations. When there’s a natural disaster somewhere in the world. Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, or the tsunami 15 years ago – United States military provides emergency humanitarian relief. That’s a standing part of its mission, both the US Army as well as the National Guard at home in the States. So the fact that the military would be poised to give assistance like erecting field hospitals or creating a quarantine zone. It was, I don’t think that’s unusual, and I’m very happy that we have that capacity, and it does speak well to the US military and its readiness to respond to the nation’s needs. I just wish that that sort of readiness was available all across the federal government.

Tom Temin: And as you indicated, Congress knew about this because they were briefed on it yearly since the last 15, 16 years. What’s your assessment of what they have done so far in response?

Paul Miller:  What they’ve done so far? Well, that’s, you know, Congress is not a crisis response institution. In other words, they are supposed to establish the legal framework for the long term health of the nation. So you could maybe point fingers and say within the last 15, 20 years they failed to adequately fund the CDC or the FDA, perhaps. I think maybe going forward, we need to see some pretty firm oversight and accountability. I’d like to see actually a national commission look into the entire federal agencies across government over the last three months, particularly January, February, and hold accountable those who were maybe asleep at the signal and did not do the jobs that they needed to do to prevent this from turning into the catastrophe that it is. In other words, this pandemic is not merely a medical or a science problem. It’s a governance problem. And there were some failures of governance, most notably in China but also in the United States. And we do need to see some accountability, and it will be Congress that either chooses to or not to pursue that accountability. And again, I’d like to see a sort of a national commission to hold people accountable who allowed this to happen,

Tom Temin: Dr. Paul Miller is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Thanks so much for joining me.

Paul Miller: Thank you, I appreciate it.

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