How the Intelligence Community Predicted COVID-19

“Some experts believe it is only a matter of time before a new pandemic appears, such as the 1918–1919 influenza virus that killed an estimated 20 million worldwide,” wrote the National Intelligence Council (NIC), warning that a pandemic could “put a halt to global travel and trade during an extended period, prompting governments to expend enormous resources on overwhelmed health sectors.”

When might such an event happen, and when did the intelligence community warn about it? This language appeared in the NIC’s quadrennial efforts to project what the world might look like a decade or two into the future. It was written and published in 2004 and written to describe what the world could look like in 2020. 

That document is now one of the most astonishingly accurate predictions in the history of U.S. intelligence. The eerie prescience—highlighting the possibility of a globalization-derailing pandemic appearing in the year 2020—might be cause for celebration among veteran intelligence analysts who rarely have an opportunity to brag publicly when they get it right. 

But it should be sobering for the rest of us. The intelligence community’s warnings about the possibility of a global pandemic, repeated in report after report for over a decade, are accompanied by dire speculation about the political, economic, and military effects of such an event. The picture is grim, envisioning a world of economic and political collapse and military conflict. 

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