You likely saw this ABCNews report from Wednesday evening that US military intelligence was sending out alerts as far back as November about a novel disease in Wuhan that could produce “cataclysmic” results for US military troops in Asia and countries around the world. The intelligence report was reportedly from National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), an arm of US defense intelligence. After ABC published its report the Director of the NCMI released a statement in which he said reports of a “product/assessment in November 2019 is not correct. No such NCMI product exists.”
But there is something wrong with this ABC story. The timeline does not make sense. Either that or our understanding of the chronology of the origins of this disease is very flawed.
Before digging into this, a point of clarity. There’s a lot of criticism and suspicion about how China handled the early stage of the outbreak and how honest the government has been about what happened. This ranges from highly conspiratorial and tendentious theories to more limited ones which even the Chinese government itself now acknowledges. But no credible sources dispute the basic timeline which follows, one that is based on numerous investigative reports published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based daily which is generally seen as outside the reach of PRC censorship though that has come under some question since its acquisition by the AliBaba Group in 2016.
All these reports agree that the earliest cases of Coronavirus emerged in the second week of December 2019. In February Wuhan’s government announced that the earliest known case was a man with the surname Chen who got sick on December 8th. On March 13th The South China Morning Post reported reviewing internal Chinese government data that showed investigators had found an even earlier case, a person who had contracted COVID-19 on November 17th. That case appears to have been discovered retrospectively, apparently on the basis of retested tissue samples or swabs. To get a sense of the time scale, even by December 17th though there were only 27 known infections.
If you haven’t been deep into this backstory, the second and third weeks of December seem to have been taken up with confusion and missed clues by clinicians in Wuhan. By the last week of the month you’re more into something like a cover-up, both from Chinese public and the global public health community. The now famous case of Dr. Li Wenliang, who first alerted colleagues on social media about a new disease in Wuhan and died of it in February, was based on a social media post on December 30th in which Li told colleagues that there were “7 SARS cases” and patients “quarantined in the Emergency Department of our hospital.” From there the Chinese government was very slow to confirm the clear evidence of human to human transmission, something that had likely been clear for weeks.
But step from all these details. They all add up to a clear point: there’s little reason to think that anyone in Wuhan, let along anyone in US military intelligence, had any idea there was a suspicious new contagion getting people sick in Wuhan, let alone one that had potentially global import.
Now look back at the ABC report (emphasis added): “As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing the patterns of life and business and posing a threat to the population, according to four sources briefed on the secret reporting. Concerns about what is now known to be the novel coronavirus pandemic were detailed in a November intelligence report by the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), according to two officials familiar with the document’s contents.”
Next article says the report was based on “the result of analysis of wire and computer intercepts, coupled with satellite images.”
This simply does not add up. No published report suggests anything was happening in Wuhan in November that could have triggered or been the basis of such an intelligence report. The virus did apparently begin to spread in mid-November. But the first people to show up in clinics with an anomalous illness came in three weeks later. There’s simply no credible way that US military intelligence, no matter how good, could have picked up what was happening weeks before even the first clinicians saw someone with what proved to be the symptoms of COVID-19.
So what’s the answer?
I think the simplest answer is that the ABC report is simply wrong. Not in its totality necessarily but in dating the original report back to late November. If it’s a month later that starts to look plausible – but of course that dramatically changes the significance of the story. My guess – and it’s purely a guess is that the report was perhaps from weeks later. The other possibility is that the story we now have about the origin of this disease is very wrong, that it was already known by authorities in Wuhan and causing significant social disruption in the first half of November. I don’t think we can rule that out. But again, even the most China-skeptical accounts provide no evidence or suggestion of that at all.