The book, published in 2009, had delighted prospective amateurs. Entitled The new CIA report – How the world will be tomorrow, and prefaced by Alexandre Adler, the work was in fact the translation of outlook report from the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the strategic think tank of the American intelligence community, published in 2008. Not really a CIA report, therefore, but a very solid prospective work based on the interview of 2,500 experts from 35 countries. Everything was there: the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, the development of terrorism, the climate challenge, the rise of Chinese hegemony, the loss of influence from the United States. And a scenario that resonates in a particular way in the midst of the global coronavirus crisis: the “appearance of a new virulent, extremely contagious human respiratory disease for which there is no adequate treatment”.
The authors displayed striking precision. They spoke of a possible pandemic based on “pathogens, such as the SARS coronavirus”, with an appearance in “a densely populated area with great proximity between humans and animals, as there are in China and the south. -is asian “. This seems to have been the case for Covid-19: the first cases were reportedly recorded near the market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where live animals were sold. The rest of the scenario evoked “travelers with little or no symptoms” who “could transport the virus to other continents (…) despite restrictions limiting international travel”, a perfect foreshadowing of the current situation. In the worst-case scenario, “waves of new cases every few months”, “the degradation of infrastructure and economic loss would result in approximately one third of the world population affected, and hundreds of millions of deaths”.
On closer inspection, this report is not an exception. “The risk of a pandemic has been anticipated, sometimes very precisely, by the prospectivists of the last fifteen years, stresses Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, director of the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School (IRSEM), attached to the Ministry of the Armed Forces, author of a excellent Twitter thread on the issue. The pandemic risk has existed since Antiquity and, in the recent period, the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003 served as a kind of reminder. “
From 2004, a National Intelligence Council report indicated that failing that of a global conflict, deemed improbable, “another scenario which we believe could halt globalization would be a pandemic “. The authors warned that” globalization would be endangered if the spread of the disease stopped world travel and trade for a significant period of time, forcing governments to put considerable resources into overheated health sectors. ” Thirteen years later, in 2017, a new NIC report elaborates three crisis scenarios, one of which, dubbed Islands, evokes a pandemic in 2023 which “drastically reduced air traffic with the aim of containing the disease “.
The French prospective documents had also clearly identified the risk. The Defense and National Security White Paper 2008 devote a page to the scenario of a pandemic. “Over the next fifteen years, the appearance of a pandemic is plausible, wrote the authors. By its magnitude, its duration, its geographic extension, its indiscriminate nature, such a crisis is likely to jeopardize normal functioning of national life and institutions. ” The report “Strategic Horizons” of the Directorate of Strategic Affairs of the Ministry of Defense evokes in 2012 the scenario of a “new highly pathogenic and highly lethal pandemic”, an expression taken up a year later by the 2013 White Paper. The 2017 strategic review, which inspired the 2019-2025 military programming law, pointed to “the risk of the emergence of a new virus crossing the species barrier”.
Even Microsoft founder Bill Gates had warned of the risk of a destructive pandemic during a “TED Talk” in 2015. “Si something is killing more than 10 million people in the next few decades, it will probably be a highly contagious virus rather than a war, he assured. Not missiles, but microbes. One of the reasons is that we invested enormously in nuclear deterrence. But very little has been invested in a system to stop epidemics. We are not ready for the next epidemic. “ Bill Gates even anticipated a “virus where infected people feel healthy and take the plane or go to the supermarket “, a scenario identical to that currently observed.
Priority terrorist risk
The risk of a coronavirus type pandemic therefore figured well in the Western prospective literature. Has it been deemed non-priority in the face of other risks (terrorism, return of the power states to China and Russia …)? Probably. “When you write these kinds of reports, the challenge is twofold: to get read by the right people, and convince them to take action on a risk that may seem very theoretical, underlines Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer. It was the case of pandemic risk, obviously less easy to sell than terrorist risk. ” The current crisis will probably permanently modify this analysis grid.