December 6, 2020The IntersectionCovid-19geopolitics

Intelligence agencies must track ecological threats and epidemics

Covid-19 has brought home the fact that India must have independent means of acquiring information that has a vital bearing on our health, economy and security.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

After news of an unusual pneumonia’ outbreak was confirmed on 31 December 2019, the Taiwanese government immediately initiated control measures that ensured that the island nation remained relatively unscathed by the covid-19 pandemic. The country of 24 million has suffered a mere 686 cases to date. Public accounts describe Taiwanese authorities as having found out about the Wuhan outbreak on New Year’s Eve from social media platforms that amplified a whistle blown by a mainland Chinese health worker. We should not be surprised, though, if we were to learn that Taiwan’s spooks had already figured out by then that something was afoot in Wuhan, a city that Taipei has intense traffic with. Thanks to the early warning, Taiwan started quarantining passengers starting 1 January 2020 and began investigations that a couple of weeks later uncovered that there was indeed human-to-human transmission of the virus, countering the Chinese government’s claims to the contrary.

Given the speed and volume of air travel, every day matters in the defence against epidemics. Of course, merely having early information is insufficient—what the government does with it is also crucial. Like Taiwan, the US public health and intelligence community detected an outbreak of something new and potentially dangerous in Wuhan in the last few weeks of 2019. Yet, despite being included in the president’s daily briefing in early January, it was not until the end of the month, and after 300,000 airline passengers had arrived in the US, that Washington imposed travel restrictions. Despite the highly contrasting outcomes, what was common is that both Taiwan and US had good intelligence on public health developments in China.

I do not think India’s public health or external intelligence officials knew much about what was cooking in Wuhan in late December. As for our public health officials, they rely on information from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which in turn relies on what it receives from the Chinese government. Since Beijing spent many weeks hiding and suppressing that information, Indian health officials did not have timely and accurate information. Meanwhile, our intelligence agencies would have trained their resources on political, military and national security targets. Wet-markets and pneumonia would at best have been at the periphery of their attention. In the event, unlike the Taiwanese, the Indian government did not have advance signals of the massive threat that was brewing in our neighbouring country. To be clear, this is not to charge our intelligence agencies with a lapse, but to identify an important lacuna in our system.

While it is sensible to strengthen the WHO to make it more efficient, responsible and reliable in managing global public health, that approach alone is not enough. We should recognize that countries will hide, suppress, manipulate or play up biological and environmental developments to serve their political interests. Multilateral organisations like the WHO will be constrained by the very same political interests, and thus cannot be entirely relied upon. Covid-19 has brought home the fact that India must have independent means of acquiring information that has a vital bearing on our health, economy and security. The Research & Analysis Wing must be given the responsibility of tracking health and environmental threats, and equipped with the expertise needed to collect and analyse such intelligence. The R&AW and other agencies should also be prepared to carry out clandestine operations in the context of climate, epidemic and related threats.

Indeed, the idea of placing communicable diseases under surveillance” arose out of the US World War II experience, and epidemic intelligence” as a discipline of public health was born amid the Cold War anxieties of biological warfare. Declassified archives of the Central Intelligence Agency reveal that it tracked the Mao flu” pandemic of 1968-69 and advised policymakers that supplying China with medicines could be a way to break the ice in bilateral relations. Beyond the National Center for Medical Intelligence, which is part of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, the US intelligence community includes epidemiologists, mathematicians and other scientists who are involved in biological defence. Had it not been for the politics around the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, the role of America’s spies in spotting it early would have been better recognized.

Julian Barnes and Michael Venutolo-Mantovani noted in the New York Times that every major spy service around the globe is trying to find out what everyone else is up to” in disease management, vaccine development and political impact. It’s not just in finding things that others want to keep hidden that intelligence has a role. According to another report by Ronen Bergman, in Israel, Mossad played an outsize role in acquiring the medical gear, and knowledge, needed in the pandemic… in some instances, the agency had acquired items that other countries had already ordered.” Western governments have accused Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies of attempting to steal vaccine-related information and also exploit the vaccine mistrust that prevails among some sections of their population.

There are many more The Intersection columns here.

Let’s keep in mind that the People’s Republic of China is both the epicentre of viral pandemics and also under a regime that has both the intent and capability to control information. That makes the need for accurate advance information all the more important. If Kargil was a wake-up call for India to modernize its defence and intelligence set-up, covid-19 is another big one.

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