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Trudeau sidesteps questions on whether China’s coronavirus data is trustworthy

Coronavirus outbreak: China criticizes U.S. for making ‘shameless’ comments on data transparency
China criticizes U.S. for making ‘shameless’ comments on data transparency

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not answer a question about whether Canadian leaders have received the same intelligence assessment reportedly given to the United States government that China has been intentionally concealing the extent of its coronavirus outbreak.

Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that American intelligence officials told the White House in a classified report that China has been under-reporting infection and death statistics related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

At a press briefing, Trudeau was asked if Canada had received similar intelligence and whether China’s reporting should be trusted.

“Obviously, there will be many questions as this is worked through in the coming months — what country did what, how they managed (the COVID-19 pandemic) and if some countries were not honest with the global community,” Trudeau said. “This will be important to know.”

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Shortly after Trudeau’s comment, Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu was asked about data coming from China.

Hajdu maintained that Canada relies on the World Health Organization.

“There is no indication that the data that came out of China in terms of their infection rate and their death rate was falsified in any way,” she said.

But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Wednesday the Canadian government needs to push China “to be open and transparent.” 

“I view anything coming out of a government that is autocratic, that does not have robust and open transparency measures … with a great deal of suspicion and skepticism,” he said.

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Intelligence agencies in North America have viewed China’s reporting on COVID-19 with deep suspicion and are believed to have warned leaders in the United States months ago to prepare for a much greater threat than China’s data indicated, some experts told Global News. The experts said Canada’s intelligence agencies are partners with the lead U.S. agency on the COVID-19 file, the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI).

Questions remain, though, about the scale of the alleged misreporting from China and how early the White House was warned of these intelligence assessments. However, U.S. government leaders stated this week that missing data from China caused other governments to underestimate the threat of the pandemic.

Since the deadly coronavirus emerged in late 2019, China, a country of about 1.4 billion people, has publicly reported just 81,600 cases and 3,318 deaths. The United States has reported 216,721 cases and 5,138 deaths. Italy has reported 110,574 cases and 13,155 deaths. In Spain, 110,200 cases and 10,000 deaths have been reported. Canada has reported 11,050 cases and 130 deaths.

Intelligence experts believe China is manipulating its data in order to protect its regime and advance its interests, Andy Ellis, a former senior Canadian Security Intelligence Service official said.

“I don’t trust the Chinese government to be telling the truth about the spread of COVID(-19) and the number of deaths because they have no interest in being honest and they have been dishonest so many times before,” Ellis said.

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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime risk and threat, not only to the well-being of our families and friends but the well-being of our economies. And if China recovers first, they will be in an advantageous situation.”

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In the case of COVID-19, Canada’s cyber-intelligence agency, the CSE, will work with North American intelligence allies to determine China’s real COVID-19 statistics, Ellis said.

The CSE would not comment on the trustworthiness of China’s reporting for the COVID-19 outbreak or the CSE’s methods for discerning accurate pandemic data.

A Chinese official on Thursday denied the allegations the country has concealed the extent of its coronavirus outbreak, Bloomberg News reported, saying the U.S. is attempting to deflect criticism of its own response to the pandemic.

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If China’s numbers are wrong, how wrong are they?

The experts interviewed by Global News, including Ellis, said it’s difficult to know how far China’s data is off.

Intelligence agencies will be using clandestine and also publicly accessible sleuthing methods to gather information on estimates of an abnormally high number of deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in China, Ellis said.

For example, official reports in China say that about 2,500 people have died in Wuhan during the coronavirus pandemic. But multiple reports from media such as Radio Free Asia and also independent Chinese news magazine Caixin have estimated as many as 50,000 cremations have occurred in Wuhan from mid-January through March.

Multiple sources told Global News that Canadian intelligence agencies are partnered with the leader of the China COVID-19 file, the little-known NCMI, based in Fort Detrick, Md.

READ MORE: Live updates — Coronavirus in Canada

The unit normally advises the U.S. military on health risks in foreign countries, Denis Kaufman, a former senior officer with the NCMI, said. But during pandemics, the unit compiles accurate data worldwide on infection rates and deaths in order to inform civilian leaders in the West.

“Just based on my experience with looking at China over the years, they conceal a lot of stuff,” Kaufman said. “On statistics, they are a tough nut to crack.”

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In order to gather and analyze COVID-19 data, Kaufman said the NCMI will use intercepted cyber-intelligence, human spies, satellite images and virologists, epidemiologists, toxicologists and medical doctors trained as intelligence experts to try and create a more accurate view of China’s numbers. 

The NCMI would have provided an assessment to the United States government on the likelihood of pandemic risk emerging from Wuhan, but it would have been up to the White House and the Pentagon whether to heed the intelligence, Kaufman said. 

The NCMI’s goal in all this would be to assess whether the Chinese government was covering up the risk of a pandemic and “to provide an advance warning,” Jonathan Clemente, an American doctor who has studied the NCMI, said.

“We don’t want a medical Pearl Harbour,” Clemente said. “We want to know what the Chinese know.”