US media reports that American intelligence officials had started tracking in November a rapidly spreading illness in China " now known as Covid-19 " have raised questions about what and when the White House knew about the gathering threat.
CNN, ABC and NBC reported this week that an agency of the US defense department's intelligence arm began holding meetings about the illness in China more than a month before Beijing notified the World Health Organization, on December 31, of the spreading contagion.
The National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) tracked details of the apparent epidemic through "analysis of wire and computer intercepts, coupled with satellite images," according to ABC.
The NCMI issued a rare public statement hours after the ABC and CNN reports on Wednesday, denying the reported time frame.
The "media reporting about the existence/release of a National Center for Medical Intelligence Coronavirus-related product/assessment in November of 2019 is not correct," NCMI director Colonel R. Shane Day said in a statement.
One source close to the US intelligence community in Washington confirmed to the South China Morning Post that the November time frame was not accurate.
NBC reported on Friday that the intelligence collected in November included images showing increased activity at health facilities.
However, other details of the US media reports comport more closely with the timeline of when President Donald Trump's administration might have known about the threat and began to take the matter seriously, an issue that has been frequently questioned during the daily White House coronavirus task force briefings.
This week, The New York Times and Axios reported details of memos, written and circulated through the White House by Peter Navarro, Trump's top trade adviser, beginning in late January, when the president was playing down the coronavirus threat. One of the memos, dated January 29 warned of a "full-blown Covid-19 pandemic."
The ABC report added that the NCMI meetings drew in the White House's National Security Council in December and eventually reached Trump's desk sometime in early January. CNN said the alert was raised in a White House daily intelligence briefing on January 3.
The gravity of the outbreak was apparent to other governments in region by that time.
For example, the Post wrote about China's December 31 alert to the WHO on January 1. Airports in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan had begun tightening fever surveillance of arriving passengers by January 3 to prevent what was happening in China from infecting their populations.
The Post also reported that the Chinese government had backdated the first known case of coronavirus in the country to November 17, and recorded at least 266 infections by the end of the year. Interviews with whistle-blower doctors in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the first epicenter of the pandemic, suggest they first became aware of the new disease in late December.
On January 11, a Chinese team in Shanghai published the gene sequence for Sars-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, on an open online platform.
With the exception of Trump's decision on January 31 to bar entry to the US by foreigners who had recently travelled to China, Trump and other senior members of his administration continued to play down the threat throughout January and February despite evidence that the disease was spreading in several US cities including New York.
Trump denied that he had seen the Navarro memo, saying in a press briefing on Monday that he had learned of them a few days earlier.
Asked on Wednesday about the ABC report, he said: "When I learned about the gravity of it was sometime just prior to closing the country to China."
Additional reporting by Mark Magnier.
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