The Pentagon was aware of the likelihood of a pandemic brought on by a novel coronavirus years ago, predicting with startling accuracy shortages of masks, hospital beds and ventilators that could occur in an outbreak, according to a 2017 internal document reported by The Nation.
The 103-page document, which the magazine describes as an update to an earlier Defense Department pandemic influenza response plan, cites a novel respiratory illness as the "most likely and significant threat" in a pandemic situation.
The document also warns that shortages of masks and ventilators would have a "significant impact on the availability of the global workforce."
"The intelligence community and the military were well aware of what could, and unfortunately, did happen" said Nation reporter Ken Klippenstein in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered.
Klippenstein reports that he obtained the document from a Pentagon official who requested anonymity. Klippenstein says the Pentagon has not responded to his requests for comment on the story.
Klippenstein told All Things Considered that within intelligence circles, a coronavirus has been viewed as a likely threat going back at least five years. And while President Trump has said the current COVID-19 pandemic "came out of nowhere," Klippenstein says it is "inconceivable that the White House did not receive this," referencing information contained in the 2017 Pentagon report.
Klippenstein adds,"The threat of a highly transmissible pathogenic virus that targets the respiratory system, this was appreciated for at least the last 10 years."
The "USNORTHCOM Branch Plan 3560: Pandemic Influenza and Infectious Disease Response," as the document is titled, mentions past coronavirus outbreaks, including the MERS outbreak. The document notes that coronavirus infections are also quite common worldwide.
Though unclassified, the Pentagon plan is an internal document intended to foresee the causes of and potential hurdles to arise in a pandemic situation. It outlines scenarios that may arise during a global outbreak and options for how the military might respond. Within the document are also references to classified materials that could provide additional support to its conclusions.
The report's conclusions have foreshadowed many of the concerns currently being voiced by both elected officials and medical professionals over hospital beds and medical equipment.
One section reads: "even the most industrialized countries will have insufficient hospital beds, specialized equipment such as mechanical ventilators, and pharmaceuticals readily available to adequately treat their populations during clinically severe pandemic."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge to governments all over the world, but some seem to have coped better than others. Now many people are asking why and what can be done to be better prepared for a future emergency.
In a few minutes, we'll speak with a longtime leader of several academic and medical institutions about what the U.S. should be doing now. But first, we're going to take up the question of whether the U.S. could have been better prepared. As you probably heard, President Trump has said on several occasions that no one could have foreseen this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a very unforeseen thing. Nobody ever thought of these numbers. Nobody ever saw numbers like this.
I would view it as something that just surprised the whole world. And if people would have known about it, it could have stopped - been stopped in place. Nobody knew there'd be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion. Nobody's ever seen anything like this before.
This was something that nobody has ever thought could happen to this country. I'm not even blaming - look, we inherited a broken situation. But I don't totally blame the people that were before me and this administration. Nobody would have ever thought a thing like this could have happened.
MARTIN: But documents obtained by journalist Ken Klippenstein, Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Nation, suggest that is not true. He obtained internal Pentagon documents from 2017 - during the Trump administration. And the report predicts with uncanny accuracy a scenario where a new virus spreads rapidly throughout the world, killing people and disrupting economies and raised detailed warnings about a shortage of ventilators, face masks and hospital beds. And Ken Klippenstein is with us now.
Ken, thank you so much for joining us.
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: This document that you obtained is more than a hundred pages long. What are one or two key takeaways?
KLIPPENSTEIN: So to quote from one part, it says, quote, "the most likely and significant threat is a novel respiratory disease, particularly a novel influenza disease. An outbreak in a single community can quickly evolve into a multinational health crisis that causes millions to suffer as well as spark major disruption in every facet of society." And unfortunately, that turned out to be quite prescient, I think.
MARTIN: And the report you obtained was written for what purpose? Who was meant to see it?
KLIPPENSTEIN: This was a pandemic planning report. So the Defense Department likes to do these things so they can have plans in place to know how to respond when something like the coronavirus outbreak happens. This is something that much of the public, myself included, didn't know coming into this - was just what kind of role the intelligence community and the military plays in what's called bio-threats, which include, you know, sicknesses that occur naturally and also biowarfare, bioterrorism, that kind of thing.
And so what I found, I think, really rebuts the president's repeated assertions that, you know, we couldn't have seen where this is coming from. This is a, you know, once-in-a-lifetime event. Unfortunately, the intelligence community and the military were well aware of what could and unfortunately did happen as not just this document shows but the intelligence products that they put out regularly.
MARTIN: One always wants to know when people receive a document that is meant for internal use, you know, what the motivation is of the person or persons making that document available. What do you understand about the motivation of the source?
KLIPPENSTEIN: The motivation of my source as well as many others in the military that I've spoken to was to correct what they perceive as a false and frankly dangerous claim on the part of the White House that there was no way we could have foreseen the coronavirus epidemic that we're experiencing now.
In fact, there were plenty of warnings, and there was plenty of research into not just the likelihood that it would happen but the best response that one might adopt to ameliorate these problems. This existed all over the military and intelligence community, and that's what they wanted to correct.
MARTIN: It's remarkable the level of detail and foresight, frankly, that is in this report. For example, it says, "competition for and scarcity of resources will include non-pharmaceutical MCM - that's medical countermeasures - e.g. ventilators, devices, personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves, medical equipment and logistical support. This will have a significant impact on the availability of the global workforce" - unquote.
So it's just - it's remarkable that the report, No. 1, identifies a coronavirus as being the likely agent here and accurately predicts all of the things that are being - that is such a source of anxiety right now. So I have to ask, is it surprising how accurate this is?
KLIPPENSTEIN: I have to say that I was shocked. But talking to the folks in the military, they just laughed when I spoke to them, and they said, we've known about this forever. Not specifically coronavirus - they've known about that - as the individual I quoted earlier said, we've known about that for a few years now. But the threat of a highly transmissible pathogenic virus that targets the repertory system - this was appreciated for at least the last 10 years.
MARTIN: And before we let you go, the report offers these warnings, which, as we have both said, are uncannily accurate and, in fact, sort of eerily accurate and specific. But did the report give recommendations for how to stop the worst of this from happening?
KLIPPENSTEIN: Absolutely. That was the most important point of the report, and that's why these reports are generated - so that they can have something on the books so that they can be prepared to respond to things.
And so what it described is exactly what the CDC and the World Health Organization are recommending, which is social distancing, quarantining, use of face masks, preparation - not just telling people to use these things but also instructing the federal government to have the logistics in place so that these are prepositioned and ready for distribution quickly to meet a problem like this rapidly.
MARTIN: That was Ken Klippenstein, Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Nation magazine. If you'd like to read his reporting for yourself, you can find a link to it on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.