U.S. spies find coronavirus spread in China, North Korea, Russia hard to chart

Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay

March 31, 2020 / 5:14 AM / Updated an hour ago

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As U.S. spy agencies seek to assemble a precise picture of the world’s coronavirus outbreaks, they are finding serious gaps in their ability to assess the situation in China, Russia and North Korea, according to five U.S. government sources familiar with the intelligence reporting.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (red), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH/Handout via REUTERS

The agencies also have limited insight into the full impact of the pandemic in Iran, although information on infections and deaths among the ruling class and public is becoming more available on official and social media, two sources said.

The four countries are known by U.S. spy agencies as “hard targets” because of the heavy state controls on information and the difficulty, even in normal times, of collecting intelligence from within their closed leadership circles.

An accurate assessment of those countries’ outbreaks would aid U.S. and international efforts to limit the human and economic tolls from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, experts say.

The agencies are not just looking for accurate numbers, but also for any signs of the political ramifications of how the crisis is being handled.

We want to have as close an accurate, real-time understanding of where the global hotspots are and where they are evolving,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, an expert at the Center for Global Development thinktank, who led the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance from 2013 to 2017, including the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak. “The world is not going to get rid of this thing until we get rid of it everywhere.”

U.S. intelligence agencies first began reporting on the coronavirus in January and provided early warnings to lawmakers on the outbreak in China, where it originated in the city of Wuhan late last year, said the sources, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about intelligence matters.

The pandemic has grown to nearly 740,000 cases in some 200 countries and territories, Reuters figures show, with the United States now reporting the most cases at more than 152,000.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, declined to comment.


North Korea claims to have not had a single case even though it borders China, but has asked international aid agencies for supplies like masks and testing kits.

One U.S. source said, “we don’t know” anything about the scale of the problem in the hermetic country.

It’s a nuclear-armed country where things that could destabilize the government would be of great interest to the United States,” said Konyndyk, who also led the U.S. response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Russian authorities are considering a nationwide lockdown after recording the biggest one-day rise in coronavirus cases for the sixth day in a row, for a total of 1,836 cases and nine deaths.

Knowing the full extent of Russia’s coronavirus spread could be critical as it shares borders with 14 other countries and is a hub of trade and travel.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alluded last week to the dearth of accurate information on Russia and Iran, and accused China of a disinformation campaign, which Beijing denies.

China, which has reported more than 81,000 cases and more than 3,300 deaths, says no new cases are originating at home. It remains wary of travelers returning from abroad.

The U.S. view of the Chinese claim of no new domestic cases is that “some of it may be true,” according to one source. U.S. agencies remain skeptical that the Chinese have the virus under control, the source said.

Konyndyk said while Beijing concealed the severity of the initial outbreak, it does not appear to be doctoring numbers now, however.

China “seems to be the most successful country in terms of taking very large-scale growth and rapidly extinguishing it,” he said. “If their case numbers are real, it’s really important to understand their approach and adapt it.”

Editing by Mary Milliken and Sonya Hepinstall

Source: Reuters “U.S. spies find coronavirus spread in China, North Korea, Russia hard to chart”

Note: This is Reuters’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.

China To Lift Travel Restrictions—From April 8 Residents In Wuhan Will Be Allowed To Travel Again

James Asquith Contributor Mar 27, 2020, 03:51am EDT

Residents in China have been subject to strict restrictions on movement for several weeks, and for nearly two months in the Hubei province. Wuhan was the epicentre of the COVID-19 virus outbreak and was locked down entirely, with barriers that prevented movement in the city now being dismantled.

In Asia, several countries were quick to restrict movement for anyone holding a Hubei province passport, to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.

Since February 1, Singapore and Hong Kong prevented the arrivals of passengers from Hubei province. Only last week Singapore reported the first two deaths from COVID-19, despite having confirmed cases nearly two months ago. Similarly, Hong Kong has reported just 8 deaths from the virus despite bordering mainland China.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong went against advice issued from the World Health Organization on February 3 that stated there would be no need for disruptive travel restrictions. They have fared relatively well in containing the outbreak of the pandemic by introducing specific travel restrictions to the hardest-hit area of Hubei.

However, with the last of the temporary Coronavirus hospitals now closed in Wuhan, and the majority of stores reopening, travel restrictions on residents are also set to be lifted on April 8.

Restrictions on movement in Hubei have already been lifted this week, as long as residents have a clean bill of health signed off and confirmed.

Other countries around the world have introduced strict lockdowns and restrictions on movement in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. Nearly half of the U.S. is subjected to movement restrictions, and many countries in Europe are closed for new arrivals

Elsewhere, South Korea, which was also hard-hit by the spread of COVID-19, has brought the spread of the virus under control, reporting its lowest number of cases since February 29.

A second wave of the virus has been a concern, mostly through imported arrivals, and this week China and South Korea have seen new cases reported. However, travel restrictions on internal movement are still on track to be eased.

Wuhan is home to 11 million people and residents will still need a “Green Code” in order to travel. This health classification rates residents using color codes using the AliPay app, and has been criticised by some.

The lockdown in Wuhan began on January 23 and was the largest restriction on travel movements in history, until other lockdowns that came into force around the world trumped that number. In Italy, Lombardy placed 17 million residents into lockdown, and in recent days India has put its 1.3 billion residents into lockdown as well.

In Europe, countries are still pushing to control the spread to the virus but the numbers of deaths in Italy has declined in recent days, which is being met with cautious optimism that areas of Europe may be at the peak of the virus outbreak, similarly to where China was a month ago.

Residents in Wuhan are able to now travel within the city. Shops have reopened and cautious optimism remains that normality will be resumed in the near future.

Source: Forbes “China To Lift Travel Restrictions—From April 8 Residents In Wuhan Will Be Allowed To Travel Again”

Note: This is Forbes’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.

Dozens clash on Hubei border after China lifts coronavirus quarantine

Videos of the incident that circulated online showed a chaotic scene as citizens from Hubei stood on police cars and overturned vehicles.

Published Mar 28, 2020, 4:20 pm SGT

HUBEI (BLOOMBERG) – Dozens of people clashed on the Hubei border after the Chinese government lifted a two-month quarantine on the epicentre of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, highlighting the challenges of undoing the unprecedented measures taken to contain the disease.

The conflict began on Friday (March 27) morning on a bridge connecting Hubei and neighbouring Jiangxi province as policemen from both sides argued over how to verify if people were allowed to enter Jiangxi, according to local media reports.

Videos of the incident that circulated online showed a chaotic scene as citizens from Hubei joined the fracas, standing on police cars and overturning vehicles. One clip showed the Hubei residents demanding an apology from the Jiangxi police for setting up a checkpoint on the border.

Ma Yanzhou, the highest-ranking Communist Party official in the Hubei county involved, was seen shouting at the crowd with a megaphone in an attempt to calm people. Order resumed on the bridge at about 5 pm on Friday, according to Beijing News.

The two counties on either side of the clash issued a joint statement on Saturday, saying checkpoints between them would be removed and no special documentation would be needed to cross.

The heightened tensions underscore the pent-up frustrations of people released from lockdowns and the discrimination they may face re-integrating into communities. Hubei residents endured weeks of being cut off from the rest of China before the quarantine was lifted on Wednesday, while many outside the province still fear people who are arriving from there could bring the highly contagious pathogen with them.

On Saturday, state-run People’s Daily posted a commentary on its app admonishing those involved in the clash, saying that placing restrictions on or singling out Hubei natives “hurt their feelings.”

“We should show good rapport with Hubei people when they are returning to work,” the article said. “The reason is simple – they are our compatriots.”

Hubei reported that new infections dropped to zero on March 19, a dramatic plunge from the height of an epidemic that’s infected more than 80,000 Chinese and killed over 3,200. But with the virus accelerating its spread globally and local media reporting that unrecorded cases are being discovered daily in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, China is struggling to balance the risk of a second wave of infections with easing restrictions so that its economy can get back on track.

From Jan 23, China locked down Wuhan and its surrounding areas, effectively restricting the movements of 60 million people. The measures stopped air and rail travel and restricted those who could leave by car, while harsher measures banned large gatherings and sought to keep residents in their homes.

Some critics saw the quarantine as a heavy-handed approach following earlier failures to act quickly enough to stem the spread. As the virus spread globally, other countries including Italy, the Philippines and India have begun nationwide lockdowns.

Though Hubei’s quarantine may have averted hundreds of thousands of cases, according to the World Health Organisation, it put coronavirus patients in the province at a much higher mortality rate than other regions. Hospitals were overwhelmed by patients and suffered a dearth of supplies, forcing them to turn away people with other critical illnesses.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who claimed personal responsibility for the decision to lock down Hubei, urged officials to help the province get back to normal quickly during a visit to Wuhan earlier this month.

Hubei last week started allowing some residents in lower-risk areas to leave the province for work. Wuhan was excluded from the relaxed rules. People have to get a “green code” certification proving they are in good health in order to leave, though specific requirements for traveling domestically are still unclear.

Source: The Strait Times “Dozens clash on Hubei border after China lifts coronavirus quarantine”

Note: This is The Strait Times’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.

Exclusive: U.S. axed CDC expert job in China months before virus outbreak

Marisa Taylor March 23, 2020 / 4:25 AM / Updated 22 minutes ago

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Several months before the coronavirus pandemic began, the Trump administration eliminated a key American public health position in Beijing intended to help detect disease outbreaks in China, Reuters has learned.

The American disease expert, a medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency, left her post in July, according to four sources with knowledge of the issue. The first cases of the new coronavirus may have emerged as early as November, and as cases exploded, the Trump administration in February chastised China for censoring information about the outbreak and keeping U.S. experts from entering the country to help.

It was heartbreaking to watch,” said Bao-Ping Zhu, a Chinese American who served in that role, which was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2007 and 2011. “If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster.”

Zhu and the other sources said the American expert, Dr. Linda Quick, was a trainer of Chinese field epidemiologists who were deployed to the epicenter of outbreaks to help track, investigate and contain diseases.

As an American CDC employee, they said, Quick was in an ideal position to be the eyes and ears on the ground for the United States and other countries on the coronavirus outbreak, and might have alerted them to the growing threat weeks earlier.

No other foreign disease experts were embedded to lead the program after Quick left in July, according to the sources. Zhu said an embedded expert can often get word of outbreaks early, after forming close relationships with Chinese counterparts.

Zhu and the other sources said Quick could have provided real-time information to U.S. and other officials around the world during the first weeks of the outbreak, when they said the Chinese government tamped down on the release of information and provided erroneous assessments.

Quick left amid a bitter U.S. trade dispute with China when she learned her federally funded post, officially known as resident adviser to the U.S. Field Epidemiology Training Program in China, would be discontinued as of September, the sources said. The U.S. CDC said it first learned of a “cluster of 27 cases of pneumonia” of unexplained origin in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31.

Since then, the outbreak of the disease known as COVID-19 has spread rapidly worldwide, killing more than 13,600 people, infecting more than 317,000. The epidemic has overwhelmed healthcare systems in some countries, including Italy, and threatens to do so in the United States and elsewhere.

During a press briefing on Sunday shortly after this story was first published, President Donald Trump dismissed the Reuters report as similar to other stories regarding the CDC that he described as “100 percent wrong,” without addressing whether the role had been eliminated.

U.S. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield maintained the agency’s presence in China “is actually being augmented as we speak,” without elaborating.

In a statement to Reuters before the report was published, the CDC said the elimination of the adviser position did not hinder Washington’s ability to get information and “had absolutely nothing to do with CDC not learning of cases in China earlier.”

The agency said its decision not to have a resident adviser “started well before last summer and was due to China’s excellent technical capability and maturity of the program.”

The CDC said it has assigned two of its Chinese employees as “mentors” to help with the training program. The agency did not respond to questions about the mentors’ specific role or expertise.

The CDC would not make Quick, who still works for the agency, available for comment.

Asked for comment on Chinese transparency and responsiveness to the outbreak, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred Reuters to remarks by spokesman Geng Shuang on Friday. Geng said the country “has adopted the strictest, most comprehensive, and most thorough prevention and control measures in an open, transparent, and responsible manner, and informed the (World Health Organization) and relevant countries and regions of the latest situation in a timely manner.”

One disease expert told Reuters he was skeptical that the U.S. resident adviser would have been able to get earlier or better information to the Trump administration, given the Chinese government’s suppression of information.

In the end, based on circumstances in China, it probably wouldn’t have made a big difference,” Scott McNabb, who was a CDC epidemiologist for 20 years and is now a research professor at Emory University. “The problem was how the Chinese handled it. What should have changed was the Chinese should have acknowledged it earlier and didn’t.”


Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) said on Friday that his agency learned of the coronavirus in early January, based on Redfield’s conversations with “Chinese colleagues.”

Redfield learned that “this looks to be a novel coronavirus” from Dr. Gao Fu, the head of the China CDC, according to an HHS administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Dr. Redfield always talked to Dr. Gao,” the official said.

HHS and CDC did not make Azar or Redfield available for comment.

Zhu and other sources said U.S. leaders should not have been relying on the China CDC director for alerts and updates. In general, they said, officials in China downplayed the severity of the outbreak in the early weeks and did not acknowledge evidence of person-to-person transmission until Jan. 20.

After the epidemic exploded and China had imposed strict quarantines, Trump administration officials complained that the Chinese had censored information about the outbreak and that the United States had been unable to get American disease experts into the country to help contain the spread.

Azar told CNN on Feb. 14 that he and CDC director Redfield officially offered to send a CDC team into China on Jan. 6 but still had not received permission for them to enter the country. HHS oversees the CDC.

Dr. Redfield and I made the offer on January 6th – 36 days ago, 60,000 cases and 1,300 deaths ago,” Azar said. “We made the offer to send the CDC experts in to assist their Chinese colleagues to get to the bottom of key scientific questions like, how transmissible is this disease? What is the severity? What is the incubation period and can there be asymptomatic transmission?”

Days later, the World Health Organization secured permission to send a team that included two U.S. experts. The team visited between Feb. 16th and 24th. By then, China had reported more than 75,000 cases.

On Feb. 25, the first day the CDC told the American public to prepare for an outbreak at home, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of mishandling the epidemic through its “censorship” of medical professionals and media.

Relations between the two countries have deteriorated since then, as Trump has labeled the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” – a description the Chinese have condemned as stigmatizing. Last week, the Chinese government announced that Americans from three U.S. news organizations, The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, would be expelled from China.


The decision to eliminate Quick’s job came as the CDC has scaled back the number of U.S. staffers in China over the last two years, the sources told Reuters.

We had already withdrawn many technical public health experts,” the same expert said.

The CDC, however, disputed that staffing was a problem or that its information had been limited by the move. “It was not the staffing shortage that limited our ability” it said.

The U.S. CDC team in Beijing now includes three American citizens in permanent roles, an additional American who is temporary and around 10 Chinese nationals, the agency said. Of the Americans, one is an influenza expert with expertise in respiratory disease. COVID-19 is not influenza, though it can cause severe respiratory illness.

The CDC team, aside from Quick, was housed at U.S. Embassy facilities. No American CDC staffer besides Quick was embedded with China’s disease control agency, the sources said.

China in recent weeks has reported a dramatic slowdown in new cases, the result of drastic containment measures including the lockdown of Hubei province, home to 60 million people.

Nevertheless, the infectious disease experts who spoke with Reuters said, the United States could use people like Quick with contacts on the ground, especially if fears of a second wave of infections materializes.

Thomas R. Frieden, a former director of the CDC, said that if the U.S. resident adviser had still been in China, “it is possible that we would know more today about how this coronavirus is spreading and what works best to stop it.”

Dr. George Conway, a medical epidemiologist who knows Quick and had served as resident advisor between 2012 and 2015, said funding for the position had been tenuous for years because of a perennial debate among U.S health officials over whether China should be paying for funding its own training program.

Yet since the training program was launched in 2001, the sources familiar with it say, it has not only strengthened the ranks of Chinese epidemiologists in the field, but also fostered collegial relationships between public health officials in the two countries.

We go there as credentialed diplomats and return home as close colleagues and often as friends,” Conway said.

In 2007, Dr. Robert Fontaine, a CDC epidemiologist and one of the longest serving U.S. officials in the adviser’s position, received China’s highest honor for outstanding contributions to public health due to his contribution as a foreigner in helping to detect and investigate clusters of pneumonia of unknown cause.

But since last year, Frieden and others said, growing tensions between the Trump administration and China’s leadership have apparently damaged the collaboration.

The message from the administration was, ‘Don’t work with China, they’re our rival,’” Frieden said.

Trump’s re-election campaign sent out a statement Sunday evening dismissing controversy about the CDC’S cut as a matter of politics.

Democrats are eager to politicize the coronavirus crisis and weaponize it against President Trump, the statement said. “In so doing, they’re siding with the Chinese and providing cover for Beijing’s cover-up.”

Marisa Taylor reporting from Washington; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper in Washington, Tony Munroe and Cheng Leng in Beijing; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Julie Marquis

Source: Reuters “Exclusive: U.S. axed CDC expert job in China months before virus outbreak”

Note: This is Reuters’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.

‘Is that it?’: Chinese report into death of doctor who raised coronavirus alarm underwhelms

Brenda Goh March 20, 2020 / 12:57 AM / Updated 17 minutes ago

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – A Chinese report into the coronavirus death of a young doctor reprimanded by police for “spreading rumours” when he tried to raise the alarm about the disease drew quick criticism online after it merely suggested the reprimand be withdrawn.

The investigative team also denounced the “anti-establishment” labels of “hero” and “awakener” that some had given to Dr Li Wenliang, who became one of the crisis’s most visible figures in the early days of the outbreak when he tried to sound the alarm in the central city of Wuhan.

News of his death at 34 in early February triggered an outpouring of outrage and sadness in China.

The report, issued by China’s top anti-corruption agency, the National Supervisory Commission, said a team sent to Wuhan looked into how he found out about the virus, how he had been summoned to a police station and how he was treated when ill.

Their key recommendation, according to the report published by state broadcaster CCTV, was to say that Wuhan authorities needed to find the police who had reprimanded Li and hold them responsible for not following correct procedures.

It said the reprimand by police should be withdrawn.

Is that it?” said one user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, where news of the report was the top read topic, with over 160 million views, on Thursday evening.


It’s like they might as well have not said anything,” said another.

Many social media posts criticising the government report were still available on Weibo hours after they were published, in contrast to how in early February numerous discussions of his death were censored, especially ones blaming the government.

Users also criticized a separate statement which said Wuhan police had identified and warned two police officers who dealt with Li’s case, saying more senior officials should be held accountable.

Didn’t these cadres follow their leaders’ orders? This is too much,” said one.

Li’s treatment by police prompted public calls for the Wuhan government to apologise, especially as the city’s authorities were accused of covering up the outbreak in its early days.

Since then, the virus has spread globally to 172 nations, infecting nearly 220,000, killing more than 8,900 people and crippling the global economy.

The investigative team said Li had not disrupted public order with his actions, describing him as a professional who had fought bravely and made sacrifices. His family had received workplace injury and funeral subsidies, it said.

Source: Reuters “’Is that it?’: Chinese report into death of doctor who raised coronavirus alarm underwhelms”

Note: This is Reuters’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.

China’s Wuhan opens another makeshift hospital to fight virus

February 8, 2020 / 4:24 PM / Updated 20 hours ago

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese city at the center of the coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 700 people across the country opened another makeshift hospital on Saturday, providing 1,500 beds, state media reported.

The first medical team has arrived at the Leishenshan hospital in Wuhan and patients will be admitted on Saturday, state-run CCTV reported. It said the hospital has 32 wards and a surgical operating room.

Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei province, has been converting buildings into hospitals to deal with the high number of patients that have contracted the coronavirus.

The city’s first makeshift hospital, Huoshenshan – built from scratch in just eight days – started to receive patients on Monday.

Hubei’s health commission said on Saturday that 699 people in the province have died from the disease and it was dealing with 24,953 cases of the virus.

Reporting by Tom Daly and Min Zhang: Editing by Neil Fullick

Source: Reuters “China’s Wuhan opens another makeshift hospital to fight virus”

Note: This is Reuters’ report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.

China Is Building a Hospital for Coronavirus Patients in Just Six Days. How?

The country has taken on similar rush jobs before.

By Jennifer Leman

Jan 24, 2020

  • Authorities in Wuhan, China have begun construction on a new temporary hospital in the region, designed to isolate and treat patients of the coronavirus.

  • City officials plan to complete construction in just six days.

  • This isn’t the first time China has pulled off such an enormous feat; During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Beijing built a similar medical facility in just under seven days.

Wuhan, China is the epicenter of a new type of coronavirus that has infected more than 830 people and killed as many as 26 throughout China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the United States. To tackle the crisis, the city began construction on a 1,000-bed temporary hospital in Wuhan’s Caidian district Thursday evening. Officials have said they plan to finish the project in just six days.

That’s right: six days.

Hundreds of workers are already at the bustling six-acre construction site, operating diggers and other heavy equipment. According to the Changjiang Daily, more than 35 diggers and 10 bulldozers were dispatched to the scene Thursday evening—many from China Construction Third Engineering Bureau. Locals in the region told the South China Morning Post the city is paying workers as much as 1,200 yuan (about $173) per day in an attempt to quicken the pace.

Excavators flatten land in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the Wuhan virus epidemic. The city plans to complete the construction of a temporary hospital in just six days.

StringerGetty Images

If you’re wondering just how this is possible, Chinese officials have taken on such projects before, like when they built a similar temporary facility in Beijing during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Officials completed that hospital, which also held 1,000 beds, in just a week, by a workforce of over 7,000. Over the course of two months, the hospital staff treated nearly 15 percent of SARS patients there, according to the Post.

Sources told the Post that blueprints would be released by the Wuhan CITIC Design Institute today, and that the site would be “delivered for inspection” within six days. The prefabricated building will reportedly be one to two stories tall and will be composed of 20 “blocks,” which will house a yet-to-be-determined number of patients. Workers would even celebrate a Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner at the construction site.

To combat the spread of the respiratory illness, China has decided to impose a travel limit on 35 million people in the region. No one from Wuhan or the 12 nearby cities will be allowed to travel in the coming days, even as the country celebrates the Lunar New Year, its busiest travel holiday.

Social media posts revealed a chaotic scenes at Wuhan’s medical facilities, with several patients being turned away due to a lack of personnel and resources. Several of the region’s hospitals have actually put out calls for the public to donate supplies including face masks, goggles, and medical gowns, The Guardian reported.

Source: Popular Mechanics “China Is Building a Hospital for Coronavirus Patients in Just Six Days. How?”

Note: This is Popular Mechanics’ article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.