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U.S. intel agencies warned of rising risk of outbreak like coronavirus

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Image: Concern In South Korea As The Wuhan Covid-19 Spreads
Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear spray antiseptic solution at a subway station on Feb. 28, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.   -   Copyright  Chung Sung-Jun Getty Images
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. intelligence community has failed to anticipate some big developments, from the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the rapid rise of ISIS.

But the spies did forecast something like coronavirus.

For years, American intelligence agencies have been warning about the increasing risks of a global pandemic that could strain resources and damage the global economy, while observing that the frequency and diversity of global disease outbreaks has been rising.

In a worldwide threats assessment in 2018 and 2017, intelligence analysts even mentioned a close cousin of the current COVID-19 strain of coronavirus by name, saying it had "pandemic potential" if it were "to acquire efficient human-to-human responsibility."

The most recent worldwide threat assessment, put out in January 2019 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, contained language on global health that was more pointed than in previous years in calling attention to the risks.

Health

"We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support," it said.

Although the international community "has made tenuous improvements to global health security," the assessment continued, "these gains may be inadequate to address the challenge of what we anticipate will be more frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases because of rapid unplanned urbanization, prolonged humanitarian crises, human incursion into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade, and regional climate change."

One factor driving these outbreaks, the assessment concludes, is "the growing proximity of humans and animals. ... The number of outbreaks has increased in part because pathogens originally found in animals have spread to human populations." That is exactly how the coronavirus is believed to have emerged.

So far this year, the intelligence agency chiefs have not agreed to release a public worldwide threats assessment or testify in public, because, officials tell NBC News, they are reluctant to discuss intelligence that might displease President Donald Trump. This robs Congress of a chance to question intelligence officials publicly about the national security and economic implications of the coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. intelligence agencies are playing a role in the U.S. government's response to the coronavirus outbreak, officials tell NBC News. Among their priorities is to ferret out the actual number of cases in hard-to-penetrate countries such as Iran and North Korea, and to examine the effect of the outbreak on global trade and security.

The U.S. spends more than $80 billion a year on intelligence gathering.

A DNI spokeswoman said she had nothing to add to Trump's comments on coronavirus. In a news conference Wednesday, Trump said that "the risk to the American people is low" and that the spread of the virus in the U.S. was not "inevitable."

Public health officials have painted a different picture.

"It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Tuesday, "but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness."