Military intelligence unit briefed Sajjan on COVID-19 risk on January 17: documents

A little-known medical unit within Canadian Forces Intelligence Command briefed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the COVID-19 crisis on January 17, 2020, the government confirmed in a document presented to Parliament this week.

'The wasted time cost Canada enormously in terms of lives,' intelligence expert says

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan is seen during a news conference Thursday, May 7, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A little-known medical unit within Canadian Forces Intelligence Command briefed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the COVID-19 crisis on January 17, 2020, the government confirmed in a document presented to Parliament this week.

The briefing from the medical intelligence (MEDINT) unit came 17 days after the World Health Organization (WHO) China Country Office was informed of cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause in Wuhan, in China's Hubei province.

Between December 31, 2019 and January 3, 2020, 44 patients with an unknown form of "pneumonia" were reported to the WHO by authorities in China. Thousands more such cases would follow in the days ahead.

While the minister was briefed in mid-January about the new virus, the government's incident response group — led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and composed of cabinet ministers and other senior governmental officials — didn't meet to discuss COVID-19 until 10 days later, on January 27.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Health Patty Hajdu, Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam, Minister of Finance Bill Morneau and President of the Treasury Board Jean-Yves Duclos during a news conference on the pandemic in Ottawa on March 11, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

By that date, 82 people had died and more than 2,800 cases had been confirmed in mainland China. More cases were being reported throughout the rest of Asia and around the world.

In response to an order paper question from Conservative MP James Bezan, the Department of National Defence confirmed that the medical intelligence unit shared its briefing documents about COVID-19 widely with other government departments and agencies.

"All relevant information and analysis was briefed to senior officials in a timely manner ... The minister of National Defence receives regular briefings to ensure the safety and security of Canadians as well as Canadian Armed Forces members at home and abroad," DND said in its response to Bezan.

While the actual contents of that military intelligence briefing are unknown, it is clear that the machinery of government was aware of COVID-19 and its spread well before the Public Health Agency of Canada coordinated an almost complete shutdown of economic and social life two months later, in mid-March.

A not-so-early warning

Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa professor and one of the country's top intelligence experts, said the delay between the January 17 military briefing and the first meeting of the incident response group shows "there weren't a lot of alarm bells ringing anywhere in government" in the early days of this pandemic.

Wark said the January 17 briefing to Sajjan on the threat posed by COVID-19 to Canada "wasn't particularly early," given China was already in the planning stages for the full lockdown of Hubei province that took place less than a week later.

By the time cabinet and officials met on January 27, Wark said, Western intelligence agencies had already known for weeks that there was a new virus ripping through Hubei province and beyond.

CBC asked Sajjan's office about the intelligence report and the subsequent 10-day delay before an incident response group meeting on COVID-19. "We do not comment on specific intelligence reports," a spokesperson for Sajjan said.

"Our government and the Canadian Armed Forces are committed to health and safety of Canadians. Since the start of the pandemic, we have monitored the progression of the outbreak to ensure the protection of Canadians and Members of the Canadian Armed Forces," Floriane Bonneville said in an email statement to CBC News.

In the order paper question response, DND confirmed that Canada's military and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) were working with Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership, and with NATO and NORAD intelligence partners, to monitor the outbreak.

The U.S. military's National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) was following and reporting on the novel coronavirus as early as last November, with its analysts warning U.S. officials and allies of a "cataclysmic event."

I think we have to assume that the wasted time cost Canada enormously in terms of lives and, as economists say in a bloody-minded way, treasure.- Wesley Wark

"Canada, for reasons that go unexplained, missed the opportunity to do proper risk assessments, to seize the opportunity of early warning and to get the response planning into gear," Wark said.

"We lost a crucial period of time to take preparations before COVID-19 seriously struck in Canada. I think we have to assume that the wasted time cost Canada enormously in terms of lives and, as economists say in a bloody-minded way, treasure."

It is not clear how, or if, the military's January 17 intelligence briefing differed from other reports that were being prepared by the lead government agency on COVID-19, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

"There's two ways to read it — if red flags were raised they were not red flags that were taken seriously, or there weren't really red flags raised at that stage," Wark said.

The PHAC was working closely with its partners at the WHO, which has since been criticized for being too closely aligned with the Communist regime in Beijing.

The Associated Press has reported, based on leaked documents, that China's leaders sat on critical information that might have helped stave off a global pandemic.

'Our early warning system failed'

What is known is that the contents of the January briefing to Sajjan did not lead the federal government to close borders or restrict flights — or to alter its public messaging on the risk the virus posed to Canadians.

"Thousands of travellers were streaming through Canadian airports — none of whom were quarantined — and nobody seemed to be lifting an eyebrow," Wark said of the two-month stretch between intelligence briefing and the shutdown.

Bezan, the Conservative defence critic, said the latest details about the intelligence report amount to "just another example of how this Liberal government was slow to act" on COVID-19.

He said the incident response group should have been convened as soon as the intelligence report was prepared for Sajjan and disseminated to government departments.

"This delay and lack of leadership has put more Canadians at risk and has had real consequences for the Canadian economy," Bezan said.

As previously reported by CBC, based on documents presented at the House of Commons health committee, much of the government's focus in the early days of the pandemic was on repatriating Canadians from Hubei province and cruise ships while international borders remained open with minimal screening.

Canadian tourist Lambert Desrosiers Gaudette, left and British tourist Emma Snashford listen as another stranded foreign tourist plays ukulele at a hostel in New Delhi, India, Thursday, April 2, 2020. (Shonal Ganguly/The Associated Press)

"The reality is we missed the significance of COVID-19. Our early warning system failed and our risk assessments were totally wrong and we've got to fix that as soon as possible," Wark said.

As late as March 10, a department-drafted briefing note prepared for Health Minister Patty Hajdu ahead of question period was saying that — with just 12 cases being reported nationwide at that point (even though publicly available numbers already had climbed higher) — "the risk of spread of this virus within Canada remains low at this time."

The note also said the public health system is "well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad, limiting the spread in Canada."

A month later, Canada would have more than 21,000 cases, many of them linked to China, Europe and U.S. travel.

As government documents show, as of Jan. 28 the World Health Organization (WHO) was describing the risk of COVID-19 transmission as "very high" in China and "high at the global level."

It would be weeks before Canadian public health officials changed their risk assessment.

"There's a lot of explaining that I think the Canadian government needs to do as to why it held on to a low risk judgment for so long until suddenly, on a Sunday in mid-March, we got all these cascading, desperate measures and societal restrictions," Wark said.

Trudeau and other members of his cabinet have been reluctant to publicly look back at what could have been done to better prepare Canada for COVID-19 with the country still in the grips of a pandemic.

Since mid-March, much of the government's focus has been on mitigating the spread of the virus and supporting Canadians through unprecedented job losses and economic decline.

"As we look back, of course there's going to be things we said, 'Oh, we might have said this differently or that differently,'" Trudeau said in April when asked about the speed of the government's response.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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