How the Intelligence Community Predicted COVID-19

And what we can expect next.

“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. 

The intelligence community told us to prepare for what is happening today. The hard part will be now to heed these warnings and take the next step: to imagine a way out of the current crisis that avoids the worst scenarios. More, policymakers must imagine how to use this crisis to address the long-simmering discontents that were roiling liberal modernity long before the virus emerged. This could be—should be—a catalyst for a new political moment centered on genuine democracy, genuine opportunity, and genuine community.

Repeated, specific, consistent warnings.

The Washington Post reported on the intelligence community’s efforts to warn about the COVID-19 pandemic in January and February of this year, but those warnings were only the most recent of 15 years of efforts to warn about the dangers of a global pandemic. The intelligence community began warning with increasing specificity and alarm about the possibility and dire consequences of a global pandemic over 15 years ago.

The place where the intelligence community has most consistently, and publicly, warned about the possibility of a global pandemic has been in its quadrennial Global Trends reports. Since 1997, the National Intelligence Council—the most senior body of intelligence analysis in the U.S. government—has tried to sketch a dim outline of the future as a roadmap for incoming presidential administrations. These reports are an “unclassified strategic assessment of how key trends and uncertainties might shape the world over the next 20 years to help senior US leaders think and plan for the longer term,” according to its website.  

It began warning of the dangers of a global pandemic in 2004. Such warnings were novel for the intelligence community at the time. The NIC had not previously focused on the possibility of a pandemic outbreak, looking instead at state failure, terrorism, globalization, and environmental change in its initial Global Trends reports. The possibility of a pandemic got no mention in its 1997 report and merited just a single sentence in 2000. It warned about “Another global epidemic on the scale of HIV/AIDS,” which could cause “grave damage and enormous costs for several developed countries.”

But in 2002, a novel coronavirus began spreading from China that caused what came to be known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The virus spread rapidly and killed almost 10 percent of its victims, ensuring the possibility of a global pandemic was fresh in analysts’ minds as they began to write the next Global Trends. That led to the prescient language quoted at the beginning of this article. Elsewhere the report warns: “High population concentrations and increasing ease of travel will facilitate the spread of infectious diseases, risking the outbreak of pandemics.”

The NIC published its next forecast in November 2008, weeks before the start of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic that may have killed up to 500,000 people worldwide. The report devoted an entire page to the possibility of a global pandemic. “The emergence of a novel, highly transmissible, and virulent human respiratory illness for which there are no adequate countermeasures could initiate a global pandemic,” it warned. With striking accuracy, the NIC suggested a pandemic was most likely to arise in China, that “inadequate health-monitoring capability within the nation of origin probably would prevent early identification of the disease,” that “despite limits imposed on international travel, travelers with mild symptoms or who were asymptomatic could carry the disease to other continents,” and that “the absence of an effective vaccine and near universal lack of immunity would render populations vulnerable to infection.”

In 2012, just as the World Health Organization was recognizing another coronavirus, this time one thatch caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the NIC listed a global pandemic as a “black swan” that could cause severe disruption to the global community. “An easily transmissible novel respiratory pathogen that kills or incapacitates more than one percent of its victims is among the most disruptive events possible. Such an outbreak could result in millions of people suffering and dying in every corner of the world in less than six months.”

Since then, epidemics of Ebola in West Africa starting in 2013 and the Zika virus in 2015 kept the issue on the global agenda, though the relatively successful containment of both appeared to show the resilience and capability of the global health system rather than its vulnerability. Nonetheless, in its most recent report, published in 2017, the NIC once again raised the possibility of a global pandemic: “Unaddressed disease-control deficiencies in national and global health systems will make outbreaks more difficult to detect and manage, increasing the potential for epidemics far beyond their points of origin.”

The intelligence community has also warned about the possibility of a global pandemic in its annual worldwide threat assessment to Congress every year since 2008, just before the swine flu outbreak. In 2010, the director of national intelligence told Congress that “Significant gaps remain in disease surveillance and reporting that undermine our ability to confront disease outbreaks.” That year he also highlighted the United States’ dependence on foreign sources for many critical pharmaceuticals. In 2011 he warned, “Once such a disease has started to spread, confining it to the immediate region will be very unlikely. Preparedness efforts such as the stockpiling of medical countermeasures will be critical to mitigating the impact from a future pandemic.” In 2014, he warned of a global pandemic that would cause “suffering and death spreading globally in fewer than six months and would persist for approximately two years.” 

The intelligence community warns about many things. One can find a warning about virtually any given political development around the world in some document or other. But rarely does it warn repeatedly, specifically, and consistently about the exact same possibility year after year, in report after report, through changes in leadership and analytical trends. The global pandemic is one thing the intelligence community got right.

A grim picture of  political, economic, and military effects.

Given the intelligence community’s strong track record warning about the possibility of a global pandemic for the past 15 years, it is worth heeding what else it said: specifically, what it warned about the possible political, economic, and military effects of a novel, worldwide infectious disease. The picture is grim.

The NIC warned repeatedly that the economic consequences of a global pandemic could be devastating. Its 2004 vision of a pandemic occurring in 2020 occurs, alarmingly, in a section entitled “What could derail globalization?” In 2008 it warned of “critical infrastructure degradation and economic loss on a global scale.” The global shutdown of transportation and public spaces and the collapse of financial markets during the real-life 2020 COVID-19 pandemic appears poised to vindicate the NIC’s warning that pandemic disease could undo centuries of growing economic interconnectedness and international travel patterns. 

As part of its 2012 report, the NIC grew more imaginative and more detailed. To make its forecasts visceral and concrete, the council generated scenarios of what the future might look like by combining plausible outcomes on a range of variables. It titled its first scenario “Stalled Engines,” which envisioned a world in which “the US and Europe turn inward and globalization stalls.” 

A key catalyst for a world of stalled engines comes when the world confronts an unspecified global pandemic: “As pressures grow everywhere for disengagement and protectionism, the global governance system is unable to cope with a widespread pandemic that triggers panic. Rich countries wall themselves off from many developing and poor countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.” Despite that scenario, the NIC maintained a sliver of optimism. “By disrupting international travel and trade, the severe pandemic helps to stall out, but does not kill globalization.”

But in the same 2012 report, the NIC included a fictional memo drafted in the year 2030 by a future analyst. The analyst looks back at the outbreak of the global pandemic—along with rising nationalism, unrest in the Middle East, and a Taliban coup in Kabul—as among the drivers for the reversal of globalization. “Flights have been cancelled and ship transports have been stopped,” the analyst writes, adding with more pessimism that, “The worldwide pandemic has put globalization even more in disfavor. It was the coup de grace for many, sealing the case against what was seen as the rampant globalization earlier in the 21st century.”

Similarly, in 2017, the NIC again imagined a scenario in which the world segments itself into “islands,” walled off from one other. A pandemic, again, plays a key role in bringing this scenario to pass: “The global pandemic of 2023 dramatically reduced global travel in an effort to contain the spread of the disease, contributing to the slowing of global trade and decreased productivity.”

Interestingly, the NIC consistently believed that the economic fallout of a global pandemic would be worse in developing countries and the global South. In 2004 it warned that “Such a pandemic in megacities of the developing world with poor health-care systems—in Sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, Bangladesh or Pakistan—would be devastating and could spread rapidly throughout the world.” In 2012, the fictional analyst commented that because of rising nationalism, “with the increased security and border controls, the US, some Europeans, and even China are better able to weather the pandemic,” than the developing world. 

In fact, the real-life 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has so far hit the developed world hardest—likely because the virus spread along the biggest lanes of global travel, naturally taking it to the rich centers of globalization first. And some developed countries, like Italy and the United States, have tragically failed to live up to the NIC’s expectations for rich-country public health management. But the NIC’s worry about the developing world may yet be vindicated. With cases of COVID-19 appearing in Africa and across Asia, albeit more slowly, those countries’ less-well-developed healthcare systems will soon be put to the test.

The planet as powder keg.

Forecasting the secondary and tertiary effects of a pandemic outbreak, such as the political and military aftershocks, is an unscientific business and the NIC offers only the broadest outlines. But it is not hard to understand the general trend. With economic distress comes political upheaval and heightened risk of violent conflict. Following the COVID-19 outbreak and economic recession, the governments of the world will struggle to respond and citizens will demand better. The gap between expectation and reality will result in widespread unrest and conflict within and possibly between the nations of the world. 

In 2008 the NIC warned, “If a pandemic disease emerges by 2025, internal and cross-border tension and conflict will become more likely as nations struggle—with degraded capabilities—to control the movement of populations seeking to avoid infection or maintain access to resources.” In 2015, the DNI warned in the worldwide threat assessment that a pandemic “could lead to global economic losses, the unseating of governments, and disturbance of geopolitical alliances.” In the 2017 Global Trends report, the intelligence community cited a future pandemic as a key cause in creating “a more defensive, segmented world as anxious states sought to metaphorically and physically ‘wall’ themselves off from external challenges, becoming ‘islands’ in a sea of volatility.” Infectious diseases could threaten the legitimacy or even existence of states too weak to combat them. “The spread of existing or emergent infectious diseases will remain a risk for all nations and regions, but particularly for governments that lack the capacity to prepare for such a crisis,” the NIC wrote.

These might seem obvious insights to us—but that is because so much of the world the NIC envisioned has come to pass. The rise of nationalism, the return of great power competition, rivalry over dwindling natural resources, environmental decay, a widening gap between rich and poor, improvements in technology (like artificial intelligence) that seem to threaten humanity’s control over its own future, and now a global pandemic disease that could kill millions and impoverish billions: These are the realities through which humanity is currently living. 

With multiple overlapping crises in political, economic, and environmental spheres, the planet is a powder keg. Will American nationalists blame China for the virus and ensuing recession and look for excuses to worsen the trade war? Will democratic governments fall as citizens turn to demagogues who promise drastic action to save lives, guard against foreign diseases, and restart economic life? Will Russia use Western weakness and distraction to launch another landgrab in Eastern Europe? Will other governments see an opportunity to use armed conflict to rally their citizens in times of disease and poverty? Will a new political movement arise that takes the blame of elites and “globalists” to the next level, proclaiming the virus a blessing for weeding out the weak and infirm and giving the survivors the “natural” right to rule? It is relatively easy to imagine worst-case scenarios, especially since so many of them seem destined to come true. 

Inevitable upheaval.

It is much harder to envision a way out—and here the intelligence community, which can only forecast and is prohibited from wading into the waters of policy prescription—offers no help. The world is already working on many of the most essential solutions, including a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, social distancing measures to slow its spread, and economic stimulus packages to cushion the economic devastation. 

But these measures will only slow the spread of the virus over time and dampen its economic impact. They will not head off or prevent the almost inevitable political upheaval that is likely to follow once people feel the immediate danger is past. Doing that requires some understanding of what citizens around the world are angry about—not just the anger occasioned by the virus, but the long-simmering discontent at the heart of liberal modernity that may explode in coming months. It requires some idea of how to address legitimate grievances while facing down scapegoating and nativism, and how to identify and avoid the pitfalls and dangers in the world to come. 

For example, if it proves true that the Chinese government made the coronavirus outbreak worse by ignoring, then lying about, the problem for weeks, citizens will rightly demand the Chinese government act with more accountability in the future—yet it is unlikely to do so because it is an authoritarian tyranny that does not care for the welfare of its own people. Tyranny murders people simply through negligence and corruption even when it does not murder them through extrajudicial killing and oppression. The world will be less just and less peaceful as long as tyrants like Xi Jinping rule anywhere in the world—yet we live in a world in which many citizens even in the United States are afraid to say so.

By the same token, if it proves true that the American government made the outbreak worse because burdensome and needlessly complex bureaucratic regulations and managerial incompetence from the White House prevented the release of testing kits in a timely fashion, citizens would be right to demand a different president (which is likely) and bureaucratic streamlining and accountability (which is not). The American system of government most closely resembles a technocracy loosely steered by a rotating cast of elected oligarchs in which neither the technocrats nor the oligarchs have in mind the interests of the people whom they supposedly serve. The needless centralization and bureaucratization of much of American life—paralleled by similar trends in other developed democracies—makes life there less free, less just, and less prosperous than it should be. And yet the predominant political movements on both sides of the spectrum, the progressive left and the nationalist right, both advocate for increasing the national government’s scope and power in different ways. 

At root, citizens want to feel some measure of control over their own lives. They want genuine democracy that is not beholden to special interests, oligarchs, family dynasties, generational cabals, or unelected bureaucrats at the national or international level. They want genuine economic opportunity that is not hostage to multinational corporate interest, burdensome and impenetrable regulations, or dogmatic ideology of either a libertarian or socialist flavor. They want space for genuine community of families, religious institutions, and schools to flourish, space that is not regulated, taxed, bullied, mocked, or manipulated by outsiders. These are simple demands, and they mostly require governments to leave people alone and allow local communities wide latitude to govern themselves. 

The COVID-19 outbreak could be the catalyst for the emergence of a new political movement centered on genuine democracy, genuine opportunity, and genuine community. As President Barack Obama came into office in January 2009, a watchword of his administration was “never let a crisis go to waste.” The economy was in free fall following the bursting of the housing market bubble, the United States was engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russia had just invaded Georgia. The idea was sound: times of great upheaval area also times of great opportunity. Obama’s legacy did not quite live up to the aspiration of his 2008 campaign, but the next president is likely to inherit an even larger set of crises at home and abroad. Best not to let another crisis go to waste. 

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. 

Photo illustration by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.