In a 1972 CIA document titled, “Intelligence Implications of Disease” the 1966-1967 meningitis outbreak in China is described. The epidemic triggered the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) to start Project IMPACT with the mission to devise a methodology for predicting epidemics. (1)
The other leg of the project was to understand how epidemics affect the military and civilian services. In other words, how disruptive could epidemics be to the security of a country and how does it affect infrastructures.
Meningitis Outbreak and Project IMPACT
In December 1966, the Chinese population became ill. It was also a time of political turmoil and unrest as Chairman Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution swept the nation. China was in chaos. Ongoing demonstrations and riots were rampant as Chairman Mao set about transforming China into a communist country. (2)
The epidemic was a true test of infrastructures and an ideal setting for Project IMPACT. The report released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) states that the political chaos in the streets was “one of the best ingredients for a successful epidemic”. The interaction and unchecked movement of people spread the bacteria faster than normal.
The city of Canton appeared to be ground zero. In the beginning, the project suffered since China had no monitoring system set-up. There was no hard quantifiable data.
In fact, the epidemic reporting simply referred to “many sick and dying” and “many dead”. Such generalizations made it impossible to evaluate the progression of the disease. Even when schools were closed, there was no data to reflect if it was a precautionary measure or the result of school children becoming sick.
The progression of the disease struck the Red Guards (young people’s movement of Mao’s People’s Republic of China) and they took control of the hospitals to ensure their troops were treated. This was the first sign of infrastructure breakdown. (3)
Another factor that quickened the spread of infection was the uncontrolled movement of over 900,000 cultural exchange visitors who’d traveled through Canton and were exposed to the bacteria. The visitors moved through the country spreading the disease faster than it would have moved under normal circumstances.
Patterns Emerge and a Predictive Model Is Created
As the Red Guards took over hospitals, the CIA tracked these as detectable patterns of the spreading disease.
They identified a pattern emerging north of Canton along the Kwantung Province. Through analysis, the agents predicted “a chronological sequence from one province to the next by tracing the movements of the Red Guard units”.
The Chinese methodology of fighting the disease didn’t restrict population movement until there was outbreak in an area. By then, it was too late to stop the spread of the disease.
The OSI analysts could now predict where the disease would strike next, but they couldn’t estimate the impact the disease was having on the Chinese population since there was no quantitative data. They decided to analyze outbreaks in Western countries and see if they could use that data to calculate the impact on China.
One of the challenges in this data was the high percentages of carriers. Statistics revealed that 1% – 50% of the carriers succumbed to the disease.
Using this data, the OSI estimated that between 2.5 and 5 million Chinese were infected with meningitis. Feeling this figure was excessive, the team turned to the Office of Economic Research (OER). The OER discovered that half of the Chinese population were young and most at risk of becoming ill.
–> 130 million between 0-4 years old
–> 500 million between 0-24 years old
The OSI findings were accurate.
Other Contributing Factors for Spread of Epidemic
In addition to inadequate systems to control the spread of disease, such as unrestricted population travel, there were other factors that spread the disease rapidly. One important factor was public panic.
Uneducated about meningitis symptoms, communities panicked over the slightest symptom and cried for medical help with requests for sulfadiazine. The drug supply was quickly depleted and those who truly needed the drug were left without treatment. This aided in the spread of the disease.
China’s stores of sulfadiazine were very limited with no stockpiles. This set-up a greater demand than could be supplied. The US offered assistance but the Chinese government ignored it. Instead, the government began using traditional medicine, but these proved ineffective. The government eventually turned to western Europe and Asia for sulfadiazine and received enough drugs to treat 100 million people.
Soon after, the disease began to taper off. Analysts couldn’t determine if it was the result of sulfadiazine or just a natural ebbing of the disease.
In 1968, another epidemic seized China. A new strain of flu ravaged the world infecting one out of four. The World Health Organization (WHO) named the A3 influenza strain the Hong Kong flu.
The CIA perfected its IMPACT model when 30% of the American embassy personnel became ill. Utilizing that data, OSI created a computer program that was capable of detecting trends, cycles and making predictions. This spawned a new project BLACKFLAG.
Fighting the Hong Kong Flu
The US ordered vast quantities of vaccines to inoculate the military, public health and government personnel and highly-placed civilians. Using past flu epidemic patterns, the OSI predicted the flu would travel through Europe in an eastern path.
Meanwhile, the USSR continued using A2 vaccines, even though the Hong Kong flu was an A3. This vaccination tactic created 5-6 times more cases of flu.
When the epidemic hit Southeast Asia, IMPACT could now clearly predict the effects it would have on Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army. The chronology of the outbreaks gave the team quantifiable data to reinforce the computer program accuracy.
Disease intelligence is identified as a vital tool for assessing the impact of epidemics to politics, military and economies. The report concludes, “Project IMPACT indicated that nothing is more international than disease”.
The project summary advises that computer tools designed to retrieve data must have a quick response time so the rate and path of the epidemic spread can be calculated and acted on.
It also advised fast response to prevent further spread of the disease. While the computer programs are valuable, the report reminds that the “best asset is still the cooperation of analysts in varied disciplines who help in the predictive processes”. (1)