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House votes to create new medical intelligence office to get pandemic warnings sooner


WASHINGTON – The House Intelligence Committee voted Thursday to create a new office – and new authorities – designed to push U.S. intelligence agencies to provide earlier warnings of epidemics and pandemics.

A provision inserted by the committee chair, Rep. Adam Schiff, D.-Calif., In the annual bipartisan intelligence authorization bill – which was passed outside the committee in a classified session late Thursday afternoon and expected to become law – creates new authorities designed to counter foreign biological threats, a committee official told NBC News.

The legislation, if signed by President Joe Biden, would change the name of the National Proliferation Center – a department of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that focuses on combating the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. – in National Counterproliferation and Center for Biosafety, reflecting its new responsibility to focus on disease threats.

The official added that the classified annex to the bill includes several provisions designed to strengthen pandemic preparedness and global health security.

The new provisions were drafted based on the results of a so-called “deep dive” primarily classified by the House Intelligence Committee on how spies handled the Covid pandemic, and whether there is more than the CIA and other agencies should collect medical information, congressional officials said. The review concluded that spy agencies should play a larger role in gathering information that could help policymakers gain more visibility in the early days of a health crisis.

Intelligence gathering is considered especially important if the pandemic strikes in an authoritarian country like China, which has not been transparent about outbreaks. U.S. officials and outside experts say the Chinese government initially concealed the extent to which Covid was transmissible between humans. But reports have since emerged showing that the truth was circulating in the smuggling of messages among Chinese scientists – emails and other communications that were not necessarily at the center of U.S. intelligence gathering.

President Biden signaled his intention to focus spy agencies on pandemics during July remarks to ODNI, when he noted that more people have died in the United States from Covid “than in each. great war that we fought together “.

“There is a lot of research going on,” he added. “You are going to have to increase your ranks with people with significant scientific abilities in relation to pathogens.”

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb speaks at the Skybridge Capital SALT New York 2021 conference in New York City on September 15, 2021.Brendan McDermid / Reuters file

Among those calling on spies to do more against pandemics is former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who says the impact of Covid could have been mitigated early if the United States had better intelligence on what it is. the Chinese knew.

“I believe that in the future we cannot simply depend on voluntary information sharing by countries,” Gottlieb told CNBC earlier this month. “We’re going to have to come in and have the capacity to collect it and monitor these things, which means our foreign intelligence services are much more engaged in the global public health mission.”

Writing in the Washington Post, Gottlieb said the United States cannot rely solely on the Centers for Disease Control and other public health agencies to gather information as a pandemic emerges, he said. .

“The CDC has a retrospective mindset, looking back to do a careful analysis of known contagions,” he wrote. “It’s not about collecting and sharing partial data in real time to inform active decision-making.”

When a fog of mixed signals began to emerge from China in early 2020, the United States needed “something akin to a Joint Special Operations Command to generate actionable intelligence, analysis and coordination “, he wrote. “Instead, what we had at the CDC was an agency that functioned as an academic department of public health.”

As reported by NBC News, a little-known department of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Center for Medical Intelligence, is focused on collecting information about outbreaks.

In November 2020, months before the full impact of Covid was understood, it and other US spy agencies collected raw intelligence alluding to a public health crisis in Wuhan, China, NBC News reported. . But the information was not seen within government as the first warning signs of an impending global pandemic.

Current and former intelligence officials tell NBC News that not everyone at the CIA and other spy agencies is eager to embark on the pandemic alert mission. House investigators encountered “cultural resistance” when they inquired about the problem over the past year and determined that spy agencies had done very little on their own to strengthen their ability to collect. medical information, three sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.

Gottlieb wrote that in 2014, the Obama administration crafted a global health security agenda that deliberately combines the words “health” and “security”.

“This decision sparked a controversy between the two camps, each fearing that the drift of the mission would degrade its basic functions,” he wrote.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment and the ODNI did not immediately comment.

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