Warnings from military medical intelligence gathered dust as public health struggled to define COVID-19

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Public health officials did not cite early warnings about the COVID-19 threat gathered through classified military intelligence as the pandemic crisis emerged a year ago, CBC News learned – an oversight described as a strategic failure by intelligence and public health experts.
For more than seven decades, Canada and some of its closest allies have conducted a largely secret official exchange of military medical information. This relationship regularly produces tons of very detailed data on emerging health threats.

The small, specialized unit within the intelligence arm of the Canadian military began issuing warnings regarding COVID-19 in early January last year – assessments based largely on classified Allied intelligence. Those warnings were generally three weeks ahead of other open sources, according to defense insiders.

But documents show that the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) rapid COVID-19 risk assessments – which politicians and officials used to guide their choices in the early days of the pandemic – contained no input warnings from the military, which remain classified.

Three of PHAC’s five risk assessments – obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by one of the nation’s top intelligence experts and CBC News – show federal health officials to based almost exclusively on World Health Organization assessments.

Even those who write the risk assessment reports acknowledged the dearth of information.

‘Low’ confidence level

“Due to the limited epidemiological data from China and the limited virological information available for the etiological agent, the level of confidence for this assessment is considered ‘low’ and the results of the algorithm remain uncertain at this time,” reported on February 2, 2020. PHAC Risk Assessment Report.

PHAC analysts were uncertain because – as the world later learned – China was blocking the WHO on the extent of the Wuhan outbreak and assuring international health experts that everything was under control.

Biosafety Officer Dr. David Harbourt talks about protective suits for managing viral disease at a Biosafety Level 4 training facility at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick in Frederick , MD, Thursday, March 19, 2020 (Andrew Harnik / The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, in the military medical community, the alarm bells were ringing. In the United States, the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), located in Fort Detrick, Md., Wasn’t just collecting raw intelligence through various classified means – it was producing comprehensive assessments of the virus’s trajectory last February.

“This coronavirus pandemic is right in their wheelhouse, which is part of their main mission – to be on the lookout for the first signs of infectious disease,” said Dr. Jonathan Clemente, a practicing physician in Charlotte, North Carolina, who has researched and written extensively on the history of medical intelligence.

‘Strategic surprise’

The original purpose of military medical intelligence among the Allies was to assess health and sanitary conditions in places around the world where their troops were deployed.

But over the years, Clemente said, the mandate has evolved to include “preventing strategic surprises” – such as pandemics and deliberate biological attacks.

“So there is a wide range of reports, from your short daily bulletins to long assessments,” he said.

“It’s important to know that it’s different from, say, the World Health Organization because NCMI has access to all sources of intelligence, which means they have access to the most secret levels of intelligence. , including clandestine human reports, satellites, electromagnetic intelligence and… open CBC.ca reports. ”

The information gathered through these intelligence channels would be knowledge “that other traditional health care and public health agencies” do not have, he added. It is also the kind of knowledge that would have informed the Canadian military’s medical intelligence branch as the pandemic escalated.

‘A terrible failure’

The fact that PHAC did not follow what the Directorate of Military Medical Intelligence saw, combined with changes to the federal government’s Global Pandemic Health Information Network (GPHIN), was “a terrible failure. Said Wesley Wark, professor at the University of Ottawa. who studies intelligence and national security. He requested the documents through the Freedom of Information Act.

The Auditor General examines problems with the country’s early warning system, including risk assessments. Flaws in these assessments may have affected the introduction of anti-pandemic measures such as border closures and mask warrants.

Security intelligence expert Wesley Wark said Canada’s failure to incorporate military intelligence into its rapid COVID-19 risk assessments was a fundamental flaw. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has ordered a second separate independent review of Canada’s early response to the pandemic.

CBC News first reported last spring that the Military Medical Intelligence Branch (MEDINT) began writing reports and issuing warnings on COVID-19 in January 2020. At the time, a spokesperson for MEDINT did not want to comment on “the content of the intelligence reports we receive. or share. ”

A follow-up investigation by CBC News shed light on the long-established covert network allies use to warn everyone of health threats.

It is governed by an obscure forum with a rather awkward name: the Quadripartite Medical Intelligence Committee (QMIC).

A “Five Eyes” network for pandemics

Originating from World War II, the forum enables the US, Canadian, British and Australian military to exchange classified data on global health and assessments of emerging health threats.

Clemente describes it as the medical equivalent of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, better known between Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Clemente said that, thanks to the US Freedom of Information Act, he painted a comprehensive picture and declassified the deep health intelligence ties between the allies – particularly between Canada and the United States.

He said he had also collected reports and analysis on how NCMI tracked and assessed pandemics and epidemics of past diseases, including SARS, H1N1 and Ebola.

These assessments – copies of which were obtained by CBC News – are very accurate and comprehensive. The U.S. military’s assessments of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes remain classified, but Clemente said he was certain NCMI was carrying out similar surveillance on COVID-19 that was reportedly shared with its allies.

Wark said that Canada’s public health system was redesigned almost two decades ago in an effort to prevent “strategic surprise,” but that many initiatives planned or implemented after the SARS outbreak have been left to rot and die.

A 2004 proposal that was dropped was to find a mechanism that would allow PHAC to seamlessly integrate classified information into its reporting system.

Greg Fyffe, former executive director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat in the Privy Council Office (which supports the Prime Minister’s Office), said military medical intelligence assessments rarely fell on his desk during his tenure there is ten years old.

He said when intelligence reports reach the highest levels of government, they often arrive in summary form and analysts sometimes have to look for more details.

“There’s so much intelligence out there that it’s not about saying…” I have a little something you’d like to see, “” Fyffe said. “We are talking about huge volumes of material that cannot all be shared. ”

In a year-end interview with Rosemary Barton of the CBC, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the suggestion that better early warnings could have prevented the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on pandemic early warnings

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton about lessons learned from his government’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic, what should have been done sooner, and his conversations with the President American Donald Trump on stopping non-essential travel to the border. 5:58

“I think we have used all the resources that we still need to track and monitor,” he said. “I don’t know if it would have made a huge difference for us to have extra reports on top of what we were getting. ”

The Prime Minister said that in hindsight there were things “that we probably would have wanted to do earlier in terms of preparedness”, such as building up stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies. medical.

“We could have been much better prepared”

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a year-end interview that he shared the information he had and that there had been “many conversations” within the government.

While cautioning that military intelligence alone cannot cover global disease surveillance, he acknowledged that Canada’s early warning mechanisms need serious consideration “from a whole-of-government perspective … to ensure that we have the right sensors ”.

Preparation is the crux of early warning, said Wark, who agreed with Trudeau’s assessment of the volatility of transmission of the novel coronavirus.

“We wouldn’t have stopped him from coming to Canada,” Wark said. “It would have been impossible. But we could have been much better prepared to face his onslaught, and we were not. We have suffered a terrible failure of early warning, intelligence, risk assessment.

“And the main lesson… from the experience of COVID-19 is that we need to fix all of these things. We need to have a better early warning system. ”

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