Intelligence and the Invisible Adversary

A Pandemic Perspective from the Middle East
This article identifies Canadian H1N1 research for its impact on how emergency teams managed the early planning of the COVID response in the Middle East.

3 February 2020
“Ring Ring”
“Darren, the Senior VP of Health & Security wants to meet with you tomorrow morning at 0700HRS.”
“Sure thing, can I ask why?”
“Something to do with the virus which has broken out in China. He wants to meet with you and discuss options, He sounds very serious so make sure you bring every piece of intelligence you generated since December 2019.”
“Understood, I will be in his office at 0645HRS”

This was the first conversation I had with any member of the senior management team about COVID-19. The world was just beginning to understand that a potentially deadly virus from the industrial city of Wuhan, China was losing containment.

Part of the accountabilities of my team here in the Middle East, in addition to the corporate responsibilities every emergency management team is assigned, is to maintain a global-watch on any and all threats and hazards that may impact the business of our company (one of the largest energy producers on the planet). 

However, despite the many threat platforms that exist in the Middle East region, I had never received a call from one of the most senior-ranking executives in the organization asking to discuss a threat face-to-face.

4 February 2020
“Darren, what do you know about this new coronavirus?”
“Sir, judging by the epidemiological studies coming out of the W.H.O., the virus seems highly contagious and has resulted in several population lockdowns within China. I think this situation is quite serious and could even become a global pandemic by next month if not properly checked.”
“I want you to move the company to our highest emergency response level. I am moving forward with the process of protecting our personnel and critical operations from this virus. How long do we need to be at full-readiness?”
“We can be at Emergency Level-3 in less than 2 hours, Sir.”
“Then do it.”

Here is the where the story gets really interesting. For the past two years, my team had been working days, nights and weekends to develop the organization’s emergency and crisis management system into a world-class platform. The support we received from our senior leaders during this development period was nothing less than stellar, and we managed to finish in late December of 2019. 

We had taken extreme care to ensure our new response platform could meet the critical demands of any and all threats to the organization and not just the ubiquitous scenarios that permeate the throngs of emergency response systems through the world. Our system, we thought, could meet any incident head-on and twist its arm until it hit the ground and submitted.

Then COVID-19 came along…..

Putting Good Intel to Work
Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu wrote that, “…every battle is won and lost before it is ever fought.” This has become a personal mantra that I have deeply entwined within both my personal and professional life. However, in the early days of the pandemic, I remember thinking this was going to be a battle against an unknown adversary, an unfamiliar foe; indeed an invisible enemy. 

Did we have all the necessary data to make the right decisions before we began to engage this unfamiliar opponent? Did we truly know everything we could know about this virus so far? The ever-changing global situation coupled with the regional impacts were startling – even for the most seasoned emergency management practitioner – and if we were going to have any chance at success, we needed to wrap our minds around not what we had in our possession but what we didn’t have.

I recalled my time in Canada’s North, during the H1N1 outbreak. I was assigned as a special senior advisor to the Yukon Territory’s pandemic response team but, as we all know, that virus quickly became subdued with the onset of a vaccine. The team spent thousands of hours creating hundreds of models and laying out all the possible responses to every conceivable realistic threat. 

Regrettably, all of our work was boxed and placed on some unknown shelf in a government warehouse, having never been tested or implemented in field operations. I would have never imagined that in less than 10 years, another virus would emerge which would give me the ability to figuratively unpack those boxes and deploy these strategies on the other side of the planet.
As we know too well, there is nothing more unpredictable than a biological incident. 

So many governments and organizations around the world were just not ready for the virus, and some simply ignored the warning signs or didn’t know what to do. However, what was not known to anyone at the time was that response delay would mean the difference between success and potential catastrophic consequences. 

It was truly eye-opening to see how entire sections of companies and governments began to collapse from decision-makers simply taking too much time to get their emergency and crisis systems ready in order to meet the virus head-on. 

Yet, who could blame them? Not every government or organization has access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who are highly skilled in emergency management and even less have access to emergency management SMEs who are trained and have field experience in containing biological outbreaks.

Impact in the Middle East
COVID-19 rolled into the Middle East like an out-of-control freight train, and hit the nations of this region like a veritable tsunami. Infections began to exponentially mount and some health-care systems were quickly overwhelmed with thousands of cases per day – and with, of course, the ever-increasing death rate that accompanied the expanding caseload. 

The confusion surrounding the crisis was in evidence as global messages from the World Health Organization (WHO) were withdrawn and replaced with new ones. Adding salt to the proverbial wound were the messages being espoused by the Presidents of the United States and Brazil, offering distorted hope to a world trying to find a way out of the chaos.

Yet, our organization was ready. Indeed, we did reel somewhat from the initial impact, but nowhere near the buckling we saw other organizations throughout the world experience. However, even though we unpacked the tools that we knew could meet this operational continuity challenge – the containment and isolation models, a compartmentalized workforce, enhanced IT to deliver working from home platforms, rapid-reaction contact tracing teams, physical barriers, hyper-disinfection cycles – there was the ever-present reality of the ever-changing dynamic of the virus. It was this evolving reality that gave rise of our greatest weapon – collaborative intelligence.

Collaborative Intelligence
Our team, recognizing the unique and uncertain nature of COVID-19, literally began to plug into and open dialogues with other organizations, dividing them into two categories: those that had already been hit with the primary infection wave, and those that were about to be. 

Building an affirmative communication collection hub, we found ourselves in the very enviable position of having front-end information literally days and sometimes weeks before it became mainstream. This allowed us to pivot towards new ideas and strategies which were never considered; truly what I would consider to be the perfect example of “out of the box thinking”.

As practitioners, we all know the value of data and information sharing. Yet, having direct links into some of the most closed-off parts of South-east Asia meant we could see the real picture forming before the contagion started to find its way into southern Europe. We were taking information from every source we could get our hands on. At times, our team was synthesizing over 200 to 400 active information leads in a single 24 hour period; a feat any government intelligence agency would have been impressed with.

Intelligence and the Continuity of Advancement
As the global and regional situation began to further destabilize, our data and intelligence tracks provided our organization with a pathway to incubate our essential functions against the COVID-19 threat and also alerted us to new and emerging techniques. Our organization, working with the national government, was one of the very first early adopters into the concept of seroprevalence, which is the use of blood tests to identify people in a population or community that may have antibodies against an infectious disease. 

Essentially, we were looking for antibodies created from COVID-19. With more and more intelligence from South East Asia and southern Europe, our medical teams began to vector in on those who may have already been exposed to the virus and were essentially immune. 
We were among the first groups to understand that COVID-19 does not have a true immunity and that people can indeed, though with usually smaller impacts, become re-infected. 

Through our information net, we were also able to generated more understanding on the “immunity passports” which holds that a human can hold their COVID-19 immunity for a little less than 3 months without become re-infected (though indeed a carrier with the potential to infect others). 

Though the medical community is still working on all of these concepts, it was the consistent focus on “what else is out there” that permitted us to look at these mitigations weeks ahead of most other regions.

The main point, of constantly pushing the intelligence envelope in the face of an unknown adversary, such as COVID-19, is widely appreciated. However, even though we may all agree on the position that good intel will give us, let me state that we are nowhere out of the woods yet. 

We all need to stay diligent, remain focused on the mission at hand, and always lead with your best foot. 

Darren Butt is an emergency management professional. His specializations include: environmental emergency readiness, petrochemical incident response, community emergency interface systems, pandemic response planning and integrated corporate response platforms.