News April 21, 2020

APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar on the U.S. Intelligence Report that Warned of a Coronavirus Pandemic

In our online conversation, Fingar discusses the 2008 National Intelligence Council report he oversaw and that urged action on coronavirus pandemic preparedness, explains the U.S. initial failed response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and considers the implications of the current crisis for U.S.-China relations.
An empty Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. seen with the United States Capitol  in the background.
Vehicle traffic is almost non-existent on Pennsylvania Avenue as the United States Capitol is reflected in a rainwater puddle during the novel coronavirus pandemic April 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. COVID-19 has sent lawmakers home and brought the business of the nation’s capital to a near-total halt. Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images

In 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) published the fourth installment in its effort to identify “megatrends” likely to shape world events a decade or more into the future. Shorenstein APARC Fellow and China expert Thomas Fingar, the then chairman of the NIC, oversaw that report, Global Trends 2025. The unclassified report uses scenarios to illustrate some of the ways in which the factors driving world events – from climate change to demographic decline to changing geopolitical powers – may interact to generate challenges and opportunities for future decisionmakers. One of these scenarios is the emergence of a global pandemic that bears a chilling resemblance to COVID-19.

We sat down with Fingar for an online conversation about the NIC report and its pandemic scenario, the government action it spurred, the United States’ failed initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the implications of the current crisis for U.S.-China relations. Watch:

Twelve years after its publication, the NIC’s "Potential Emergence of a Global Pandemic" scenario (p. 75) has proven to be woefully accurate:

“The emergence of a novel, highly transmissible, and virulent human respiratory illness for which there are no adequate countermeasures could initiate a global pandemic. If a pandemic disease emerges by 2025, […] it probably will first occur in an area marked by high population density and close association between humans and animals, such as many areas of China and Southeast Asia […] Slow public health response would delay the realization that a highly transmissible pathogen had emerged […] Despite limits imposed on international travel, travelers with mild symptoms or who were asymptomatic could carry the disease to other continents. Waves of new cases would occur every few months. The absence of an effective vaccine and near-universal lack of immunity would render populations vulnerable to infection.”

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It was not a prediction, recalls Fingar, but rather an attempt to urge policymakers to think “beyond tomorrow,” past the end of their administration, and to stimulate strategic thinking about how to reinforce positive trends and change or ameliorate negative ones. If the report and its global pandemic scenario are precise, he notes, it is because the NIC’s effort involved the best specialists within the U.S. intelligence community and engaged numerous and varied groups of non-U.S. Government experts.

Yet the United States has been unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis is now worsening U.S.-China tensions. To address the crisis, however, argues Fingar, both countries must cooperate in the international fora. “Let that be the way that builds towards a better bilateral relationship.”

Thomas Fingar is a Shorenstein APARC Fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. From 2005 through 2008, he served as the first deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and, concurrently, as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. His forthcoming edited volume is 'Fateful Decisions: Choices That Will Shape China's Future' (Stanford University Press, May 2020).
Headshot of Thomas Fingar

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