Epidemic Intelligence, Yet Another Challenge for Government Intelligence

The alarm, made by intelligence agencies around the world, was loud and clear. Unfortunately, many governments turned a deaf ear to it.

According to The Washington Post, the White House received the first signs of a “red alert” as early as January 3. This was followed by warnings sounded by the CIA and the Office of the American Director of National Intelligence in the following weeks, which provided very specific information about the spread of the virus in China and on the disinformation campaign by the Chinese authorities to minimize the seriousness of the danger.

Naturally, Trump was not the only world leader aware of the situation. After all, and this is no secret, all the intelligence agencies have always paid close attention to biological threats.

This is because viruses do not respect borders and they can have a silent and rapid global impact. Although few countries officially have biological arsenals, developing, arming and rapidly deploying biological agents is incredibly easy. However, it’s not easy to distinguish between legitimate biological research and research aimed at the production of pathogens and the same team of researchers and the same equipment can be used for both purposes. Probably, on a global level, most labs have the know-how and means to produce and disseminate (even unintentionally or accidentally) a lethal weapon.

In just a short time, super bacteria can spread silently and strike humans, animals or plants. They do not need any special tools to act. You do not need a missile to transmit a virus to your enemy. It is an effective weapon, one that can be rather inexpensive to create and easy to transmit, that can have a devastating social impact. Add to this scenario, which is already worrying in itself, the fact that, in most cases, viruses have a natural origin. Despite all this, very few governments have mobilized adequate resources to implement bio-surveillance systems thus far.

The effects of COVID-19 are such that we will soon see a paradigm shift that is very similar in scope, intensity and focus to the one that occurred after September 11, 2001. This is a revolution that will have a 360° impact on the activities of Intelligence and Defense services. Among the first measures should be a strengthening of government Medical Intelligence for epidemiological threats, with the creation of a specific vertical focus dedicated to “Epidemic Intelligence.”

What are the key elements of this new branch of intelligence? There are three.

First of all, it will serve to enrich the team of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) defense specialists by enabling organizations to enlist relevant experts in the field. The Italian Army has maintained a specific competency in this area, which, however, must be increased and expanded to all governmental stakeholders of our national security.

The second pillar is represented by the network of sensors dedicated to data collection:
– Those generated by health organizations, including veterinary data, given the high transmissibility to humans of many viruses that originate in animals
– Open sources (to support digital disease detection, i.e. the ability to identify situations of potential biological risk from the analysis of content on social networks)
– Satellite images (NASA has captured the extent of COVID-19 and the effects of the lockdown, noting a decrease in pollutant emissions in China) and scientific papers

Finally, this new branch of intelligence will require the best Artificial Intelligence software technologies, without which it will be impossible to process and correlate billions of data, in real time, to search for the combined presence of weak signals and events that must be subject to validation by medical specialists.

Current Artificial Intelligence and machine learning tools both offer a significant contribution for the analysis of unstructured data, such as text data and structured data on which data mining becomes fundamental.

The key theme will be this: weak signals. This is the type of information that is often ignored and contained in data that may be outside the mainstream interest. The weak signals of the last five years on COVID-19 are many, and they are all contained on open sources.

In the meantime, it will also be necessary to strengthen the cyber resilience of health organizations, research laboratories and pharmaceutical companies. Their data, already precious, is the target of hackers who are aware of the value of clinical studies useful for developing a vaccine.

To avoid falling back into the disaster, in short, good Epidemic Intelligence is needed. What is also needed, on the part of our leaders, is a greater ability to hear and respond to the alarms launched by Homeland Security and our National Defense services.

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