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Public health officials failed to cite early warnings about the threat of COVID gathered through classified military intelligence as the pandemic crisis emerged a year ago, CBC News has learned — an oversight described as a strategic failure by intelligence and public health experts.

For over seven decades, Canada and some of its closest allies have operated a largely secret formal exchange of military medical intelligence. That relationship regularly produces troves of highly detailed data on emerging health threats. The small, specialized unit within the Canadian military's intelligence branch began producing warnings about COVID in early January of last year — assessments based largely on classified allied intelligence.

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Those warnings generally were three weeks ahead of other open sources, say defence insiders. But documents show the Public Health Agency of Canada's PHAC COVID rapid risk assessments — which politicians and public servants used to guide their choices in early days of the pandemic — contained no input from the military's warnings, which remain classified. Three of the five PHAC risk assessments — obtained under access to information law by one of the country's leading intelligence experts and CBC News — show federal health officials relying almost exclusively on assessments from the World Health Organization.

The analysts at PHAC were uncertain because — as the world learned later — China was stonewalling the WHO about the extent of the Wuhan outbreak and assuring international health experts that everything was under control. Meanwhile, in the military medical community, alarm bells were ringing.

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In the U. Jonathan Clemente, a physician practicing in Charlotte, North Carolina who has researched and written extensively about the history of medical intelligence. The original purpose of military medical intelligence among the allies was to assess sanitary and health conditions in the places around the globe where their troops were deployed. But over the years, Clemente said, the mandate evolved to include "preventing strategic surprise" — such as pandemics and deliberate biological attacks.

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The information gathered through such intelligence channels would be knowledge "that other traditional health care and public health agencies" don't have, he added. It's also the kind of knowledge that would have informed the Canadian military's medical intelligence branch as the pandemic was gathering momentum.


The fact that PHAC didn't track what the military medical intelligence branch was seeing, coupled with changes to the federal government's own Global Pandemic Health Information Network GPHINrepresent "a terrible failure," said Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor who studies intelligence services and national security. He requested the documents through the access to information law. The auditor general is reviewing what went wrong with the country's early warning system, including the risk assessments. Flaws in those assessments may have affected the introduction of anti-pandemic measures such as border closures and mask mandates.

A second, separate independent review of Canada's early pandemic response has been ordered by Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

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At the time, a spokesperson for MEDINT would not comment "on the content of intelligence reports that we receive or share. A follow-up investigation by CBC News has shed more light on the long-established secret network the allies use to warn each other of health threats. Originating in the Second World War, the forum allows the American, Canadian, British and Australian militaries to exchange classified global health data and assessments about emerging health threats.

Clemente said that, through U. Those assessments — copies of which were obtained by CBC News — are very precise and complete.

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The U. Wark said Canada's public health system was redeed almost two decades ago with the aim of preventing "strategic surprise," but many of the initiatives planned or implemented following the SARS outbreak were allowed Murray escort classified wither away and die. One proposal which fell by the wayside was to find a mechanism that would allow PHAC to seamlessly incorporate classified intelligence into its system of reporting. Greg Fyffe, the former executive director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat in the Privy Council Office which supports the prime minister's officesaid military medical intelligence assessments rarely came across his desk during his tenure a decade ago.

He said that when intelligence reports reach the highest levels of government, they often arrive in summary form and analysts occasionally have to seek out more details. The prime minister said that, in hindsight, there were things "we probably would have wanted to have done sooner in terms of preparing," such as bolstering stocks of personal protective equipment PPE and other medical supplies. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan indicated in a year-end interview that he shared the information he had and there were "many conversations" within the government.

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While he cautioned that military intelligence alone can't cover global disease surveillance, he did acknowledge that Canada's early warning mechanisms need a serious review "from a whole-of-government perspective Preparation is the whole point of early warning, said Wark, who agreed with Trudeau's assessment of the volatility of the novel coronavirus's transmission.

But we could have been much better prepared to meet its onslaught, and we were not.

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We suffered a terrible failure of early warning, of intelligence, of risk assessment. We have to have a better early warning system.

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He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other asments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

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Military intelligence branch started producing warnings about COVID in early January of last year

Already have an ? Social Sharing. Even those writing the risk assessment reports acknowledged the dearth of intelligence. Confidence level 'low' Murray escort classified to the limited epidemiologic data from China, and limited virologic information available for the etiologic agent, the confidence level for this assessment is considered as 'low' and the algorithm outputs remain uncertain at this time," said the Feb.

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