Report warned White House of a ‘catastrophic’ outbreak in China weeks before anyone else knew

Steven Stern / Flickr The Trump administration is hellbent on...
Steven Stern / Flickr

The number of warnings that the Trump White House ignored when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic can seem almost as overwhelming as the disease itself. Again and again Donald Trump was provided with a heads up that the threat of a major, deadly, disruptive pandemic was very real, and that prompt action was needed to secure the nation. Again and again he blew off those warnings.

But now it seems that Trump may have been warned even earlier than anyone suspected. Because while the official story of the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak begins in December, when whistleblower doctors in the region first signaled that they were seeing patients in their emergency rooms with a SARS-like illness, it seems that the intelligence community was warning of an outbreak in November.

Earlier stories had indicated that the intelligence community believed that China was underplaying both the number of cases and deaths in the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak. But the information reported by ABC News indicates that an intelligence report from the National Center for Medical Intelligence, said that a mysterious illness was sweeping the Wuhan area a month before the official timeline of the 2019 outbreak.

If true, this would paint a very different picture of the outbreak, creating a situation in which Chinese officials were engaged in covering up the outbreak and altering the numbers much earlier than had been previously known. It would also seem to contradict early reports from a group of whistleblowing doctors who were locked up for reporting initial cases of COVID-19 in late December. This group included Dr. Li Wenliang, who later died from the disease and has been regarded as a hero for bringing the world’s attention to the coronavirus outbreak.

The report would also contradict not just the World Health Organization’s models and estimates for the timeline of coronavirus, but numerous scientific papers that have traced back initial cases and set the first human to human transmission of the disease around December 1. The idea that the novel coronavirus was circulating widely in Hubei province as early as November would not just completely rewrite the early history of the disease, and not just a complete revision of the pandemic’s growth and spread, it would absolutely mandate an overhaul of everything from transmission rate to fatality … all of which makes the intelligence reports very, very difficult to accept at face value.

China absolutely covered up the initial cases of COVID-19. It absolutely cost the world time that might have been spent planning and reacting to the outbreak. It almost certainly underplayed the impact of the epidemic in Hubei province, including greatly under-counting the number of deaths both from coronavirus and the associated strain on the healthcare system. However, setting the clock on the outbreak back by not just a month, but the months that would be required to have an outbreak “sweeping Wuhan” in November, deserves to be looked on at least as skeptically as any number out of China.

That said, it appears that this report integrated sources on the ground in China with analysis of what was going on in Chinese government communications and even satellite imagery. The people in the National Center for Medical Intelligence certainly thought they were seeing something of significance. Something worth a warning to the White House.

At the end of November, they handed over that warning, indicating that an outbreak was underway of a killer disease, and that this outbreak “could be a cataclysmic event.” And the response to that report was … nothing. Just like it would be to every warning that came after.

The report may or may not show that the COVID-19 outbreak began sooner than we knew. It absolutely shows that the White House was already practiced at ignoring dire warnings.

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