The US intelligence community, trying to get an accurate picture of the coronavirus pandemic, has found serious gaps in its ability to assess the situation in China, Russia and North Korea, Reuters reported referring to five sources in the US administration.
Intelligence agencies also have a limited understanding of the impact of the pandemic in Iran, although information on infections and deaths among the ruling class and ordinary citizens is becoming increasingly available in official and social media, two sources said.
These four countries are known to American spy agencies as “hard targets” because of tight state control over information and the difficulty of collecting intelligence in their closed leadership circles.
An accurate assessment of outbreaks in these countries would help the US and the international community limit human and economic losses from COVID-19, experts say.
US intelligence agencies are looking not only for accurate numbers but also for any signs of political consequences of how these countries are trying to resolve the crisis.
“We want to have as close an accurate, real-time understanding of where the global hotspots are and where they are evolving,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, an expert at the Center for Global Development thinktank, who led the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance from 2013 to 2017, including the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak. “The world is not going to get rid of this thing until we get rid of it everywhere.”
US intelligence agencies first began reporting coronavirus in January and warned lawmakers of an epidemic in Wuhan, China, where the disease was recorded the first time late last year, sources said.
According to Reuters, the number of cases is now estimated at 740,000 in approximately 200 countries and territories, with the US leading (152,000 cases).
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which controls 17 US intelligence services, declined to comment.
North Korea claims that it has no cases, despite the fact that it borders China. However, Pyongyang asked international aid agencies to provide it with materials such as medical masks and test kits.
According to one US source, “we don’t know” anything about the scale of the problem in the hermetic country.
“It’s a nuclear-armed country where things that could destabilize the government would be of great interest to the United States,” said Konyndyk, who also led the U.S. response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
More and more regions of Russia enter full quarantine due to an increase in the number of coronavirus cases. To date, there are 1,836 people tested positive for coronavirus in Russia.
Knowing the full extent of Russia’s coronavirus spread could be critical as it shares borders with 14 other countries and is a hub of trade and travel.
Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited a lack of accurate information about Russia and Iran and accused China of a disinformation campaign, which Beijing denies.
China, which reported more than 81,000 cases and over 3,300 deaths, said there were no new infections within the country. However, it remains wary of travelers returning from abroad.
The US view of the Chinese claim of no new domestic cases is that “some of it may be true,” one source added. US agencies remain skeptical that the Chinese have the virus under control, the source said.
Konyndyk said while Beijing concealed the severity of the initial outbreak, it does not appear to be doctoring numbers now, however.
China “seems to be the most successful country in terms of taking very large-scale growth and rapidly extinguishing it,” he noted adding: “If their case numbers are real, it’s really important to understand their approach and adapt it.”