Expressing and Understanding Estimative Language

When dealing with the future, we use a language that includes specific notions such as the expression of probability and of impacts. In terms of probability, for example, we use words such as “likely” and for impacts terms such as “severe”. Furthermore, to be truly complete, we should add a confidence judgement.

As explained by Heuer in the case of probability, these are expressions of subjective judgements. As a result, these words are a source of “ambiguity and misunderstanding” (Richards J. Jr. Heuer, , Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1999: 152).

Our members and trainees can download below a “cheat sheet” of these words with their explanations. For probability we provide the correspondence between subjective words and numerical probability.

Click on the image or link to download

Coverpage image: Peter Lomas via Pixabay [Public Domain]


The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly – 20 February 2020

(Credit Image: ESO/P. Horálek)

This is the 20 February 2020 issue of our weekly scan for geopolitical risks (open access). Using horizon scanning, each week, we collect weak – and less weak – signals. These point to new, emerging, escalating or stabilising problems. As a result, they indicate how trends or dynamics evolve.

scenario building, scenario, strategic foresight, online course, risk management, future
Embrace Uncertainty: Anticipate, Foresee and Warn!
Practically develop and enhance, step by step, your anticipatory analytical skills to tackle complex geopolitical, national and global security and political issues. Online course 1: from process to analytical modeling – Online course 2: scenario-building

This week’s scan is ready. Check it out below…

Here, we focus on signals that could favourably or unfavourably impact private and public actors in international security. That field is broadly known under various names: e.g. global changes, national and international security, or political and geopolitical uncertainty. In terms of risk management, the label used is external risks.

Below the scan itself, we briefly explain what is horizon scanning and what are weak signals.

The 20 February 2019 scan→

Horizon scanning, weak signals and biases

We call signals weak, because it is still difficult to discern them among a vast array of events. However, our biases often alter our capacity to measure the strength of the signal. As a result, the perception of strength will vary according to the awareness of the actor. At worst, biases may be so strong that they completely block the very identification of the signal.

In the field of strategic foresight and warning, risk management and future studies, it is the job of good analysts to scan the horizon. As a result, they can perceive signals. Analysts then evaluate the strength of these signals according to specific risks and dynamics. Finally, they deliver their findings to users. These users can be other analysts, officers or decision-makers.

You can read a more detailed explanation in one of our cornerstone articles: Horizon Scanning and Monitoring for Warning: Definition and Practice.

The sections of the scan

Each section of the scan focuses on signals related to a specific theme:

  • world (international politics and geopolitics);
  • economy;
  • science including Quantum Information Science, ;
  • analysis, strategy and futures;
  • AI, technology and weapons;
  • energy and environment.

However, in a complex world, categories are merely a convenient way to present information, when facts and events interact across boundaries.

The information collected (crowdsourced) does not mean endorsement.

Featured image: Milky Way above SPECULOOS / The Search for habitable Planets – EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars (SPECULOOS) is searching for Earth-like planets around tiny, dim stars in front of a panorama of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/P. Horálek.

Image for the online course: Science fiction becomes science fact, “The Future Battlefield“, Army ALT MagazineScience and Technology, July 18, 2018 – Public Domain

COVID-19: Anticipation, Timing and Influence – From Mobility Restriction to Medicine Shortage

Scenarios regarding the future of the COVID-19 epidemic outbreak in China and globally vary wildly (David Cyranoski, “When will the coronavirus outbreak peak?“, Nature, 18 February 2020). The estimates go from the outbreak peaking at the end of February 2020 to months away with millions infected (Ibid.). The WHO Director-General stressed the necessity to remain careful as all scenarios remain possible, despite current decline in new cases in China (Remarks 17 February 2020).

We have similarly differing assessments for the rest of the world. Yet, globally, it seems that we are facing a situation where efforts succeed in keeping the epidemic under control (WHO Director-General, Munich Security Conference). These efforts thus must not be stopped (Ibid.).

We are thus facing a new major risk. Actors could think that the apparently good results achieved mean that we can safely stop the various infection prevention and control (IPC) practices.

COVID-19, epidemics, scenario, risk analysis, strategic foresight, warning, threat anticipation
Factor in Coronavirus risks to your activity : commissioned reports
The US SEC urged listed firms to factor coronavirus risks in their financial disclosures (19 Feb 20). The UK FRC stressed (18 Feb): “Companies will need to monitor developments and ensure they are providing up-to-date and meaningful disclosures to their shareholders when preparing their year-end reports.” All companies should consider the future likely impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on their activity.
Contact us for commissioned reports helping you to plan ahead and fulfil your obligations. Also contact Dr Helene Lavoix directly.

This challenge highlights the importance of anticipation and timing in handling an epidemic outbreak. If IPC practices are eased too early, then infections could rebound and the epidemics spread. If they are eased too late, then other unfavourable impacts could spread. This is all the more difficult that uncertainty regarding the virus and its epidemiology subsist.

We saw that each actor has to take decisions regarding the COVID-19 epidemic outbreak – or any outbreak linked to a novel virus – under conditions of high uncertainty and considering complex interactions (see The Coronavirus COVID-19 Epidemic Outbreak is Not Only about a New Virus). Thus, the key is to be able to anticipate at best the various possible dynamics of the situation. This must be done with the correct model, as explained previously. And this must be done with a particular attention paid to timing.

The timing of actions is always important, but it is especially so in the case of an epidemic outbreak. Indeed, timing, for some types of actions, will have direct consequences on the spread of the epidemics, with possible cascading effects. In the meantime, timing will also have more indirect consequences on international norms, international influence and power.

scenario building, scenario, strategic foresight, online course, risk management, future
Embrace Uncertainty: Anticipate, Foresee and Warn!
Practically develop and enhance, step by step, your anticipatory analytical skills to tackle complex geopolitical, national and global security and political issues. Online course 1: from process to analytical modeling – Online course 2: scenario-building

The importance of timing is the focus of this article. We shall look at the three possible cases in terms of timing of actions: too early, too late, and timely. We shall contrast the challenges linked to the start of a new outbreak and those related to a lasting or ending outbreak. In each case, using examples, we shall highlight possible consequences on the epidemic itself, on the whole spectrum of activity for entire countries and on international influence. We shall use examples related to control of mobility and to the increasingly likely global disruption to the supply of drugs and medicines.

Too early

When a new outbreak starts

When a new outbreak starts, if actions and measures are taken too early, for example, in terms of mobility’s restriction, then consequences on the economy, notably, may be disastrous (Christensen and Painter, “The Politics of SARS“, Policy and Society, 2004). Furthermore, supply chains may become even more disrupted than in case of timely actions, with potentially very severe impacts. This may even trigger scarcity in areas, which are vital and strategic.

This explains, most probably, why, by 18 February 2020, the WHO has issued no restriction on travel and trade for the COVID-19 outbreak.

Furthermore, the WHO was also criticised during the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic for having taken these very restrictions. Those were considered as having contributed to the panic (Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2003, 81 (8): 626; Christensen and Martin Ibid.). Yet, according to Christensen and Martin, the WHO finally “emerged with heightened prestige and legitimacy” (Ibid. p. 39). Nonetheless, the criticisms most probably heightened the reluctance of the WHO Committee to issue again a ban on travel and trade.

Yet, regarding the SARS outbreak, had the WHO not delivered its early warnings, the outbreak could have been worse.

When the outbreak lasts and could end

As the outbreak lasts, timing remains as difficult to handle as when the epidemic starts. We are here however, considering reverse actions. At the start of an epidemic one must set up and increase, at the right time, IPC measures. As the epidemics ends, the actions must be taken in the opposite direction, relaxing IPC measures. However, if decisions are taken too early, for example regarding the relaxation of mobility’s restrictions, then this could lead to a renewed spread of the epidemic, with even worse impacts in other areas. Timing of actions thus also impacts the length of the epidemic outbreak.

The odysseus of the Westerdam cruise ship is a perfect example for a too early relaxation of IPC measures (e.g. Chhorn Chansy, “More passengers to leave cruise ship in Cambodia after coronavirus tests“, Reuters, 18 February 2020).

For days, the ship remained at sea as ports refused to let it dock for fear of the COVID-19 infection. Meanwhile, the ship officers denied any infection. Finally, Cambodia accepted the cruise ship and let the passengers disembark. All tested negative. However, one passenger tested positive after arriving in Malaysia. As a result, now, new contact cases have appeared, and they all need to be tested (Ibid.). At worst, all passengers and staff of the cruise could be infected, although such a catastrophic scenario is not very likely.

What we see here, is a decision to relax control that is taken too early. It thus heightens the danger to see the epidemic spreading globally. The difficulty to use the current tests most probably played a part here (James Gallagher, “Are coronavirus tests flawed?“, BBC News, 13 February 2020). Furthermore, there is a rising uncertainty regarding the validity these tests (Ibid.). As a result, finding the right timing for some mobility related decisions becomes more difficult.

Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program, tried to diffuse the problem regarding cruise ships. He remarked that:

“So if we are going to disrupt every cruise ship in the world on the off-chance that there may be some potential contact with some potential pathogen, then where do we stop? We shut down the buses around the world?” (quoted in Stephanie Nebehay, “Every scenario on the table’ in China virus outbreak: WHO’s Tedros“, Reuters, 17 February 2020).

The need to see the economic activity continuing can explain Dr Ryan’s comment. However, his statement may also have adverse impacts. It may favour a relaxation of IPC measures, when such action could be too early, as with the Westerdam cruise ship.

Furthermore, again, we note the contradictory signals sent by officials. Here, the WHO asks both to remain extra cautious and not to be in the case of cruises.

Too late

When a new outbreak starts

Not taking adequate measures early enough, even though these may appear as drastic, may also contribute to spread the epidemic. As a result, the costs across domains could be even higher.

The SARS epidemic and China

For example, China was criticised for the SARS epidemic for not having been able to handle properly and in a timely fashion the outbreak, while hiding its scale (Kelly-Leigh Cooper, “China coronavirus: The lessons learned from the Sars outbreak“, BBC News, 24 January 2020).

The costs were estimated for that outbreak to “the deaths of 774 people, spread of the disease to 37 countries and an economic loss of over US$40 billion over a period of 6 months” (John Nkengasong, “China’s response to a novel coronavirus stands in stark contrast to the 2002 SARS outbreak“, Nature, 27 January 2020, quoting Smith, R. D. Soc. Sci. Med.63, 3113–3123 (2006) and Lee, J.-W. & McKibbin, W. J. in Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak: Workshop Summary, eds. Knobler, S. et al., National Academies Press, 2004).

The Servomex Company meeting in Singapore

The string of infections stemming from the Servomex company meeting held in Singapore on 20 January 2020 is a case in point.

At this stage, the possibility and severity of seeing an epidemic was still very uncertain. On 20 January 2020, only 268 new cases had been reported (John Hopkins CSSE: Tracking the COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) spread in real-time). Furthermore, all eyes were focused on China. Meanwhile, no one wanted to risk endangering the current way of life model and economic activity. Hope that it was not truly an epidemic could still prevail. As a result, no measure truly considering the possibly global character of the epidemic were taken anywhere.

Yet, the WHO had issued it first warning on the new Coronavirus and its possible spread to other countries – at the time Thailand, on 13 January 2020. It was however not assorted of any guidance regarding meetings or travel.

And here is what happened, or part of it:

  • 20 January: Over 3 days, the British firm Servomex, a global gas analysis company, held a conference at the Grand Hyatt Singapore (Tan Tam Mei and Tiffany Fumiko Tay, “Coronavirus: Gas analysis conference at Grand Hyatt Singapore linked to infections“, The Strait Times, 7 February 2020). 109 employees attended the conference. Some of them arrived as early as 16 January. One of the overseas attendees had come from Wuhan.
  • The 94 international attendees left Singapore and, for most, went back home, all over the world.
  • 21 January: A 27-year-old Singaporean man (case 30) started developing symptoms, visited his doctor and a couple of days later a hospital (Tang See Kit, “What we know about the 3 local transmission clusters of coronavirus“, 9 Feb 2020 CNA).
  • 24 January:
    • “A middle-aged man from Hove, East Sussex”, after having attended the conference, went “to the French ski resort of Les Contamines-Montjoie near Mont Blanc, where he stayed with his family” until 28 January. The group was also in close contact with others in another apartment (Haroon Siddique, “‘Super-spreader’ brought coronavirus from Singapore to Sussex via France“, The Guardian, 10 Feb 2020).
    • In Singapore, a 38 year-old woman from Singapore (case 36) reported symptoms, visited her doctor, then went to hospital on 4 February (Tang See Kit, Ibid.).
  • 26 January: A 38 years old Korean man started to feel unwell. He visited 3 hospitals until 5 February (Chang May Choon, South Korea reports 3 new cases, including two who attended conference in Singapore, The Strait Times, 5 Feb 2020).
  • 28 January: the Sussex businessman flew back home from Geneva to Gatwick with Easyjet (Siddique, Ibid.).
  • 29 January:
    • A British family living in Mallorca, who had been part to the holidays’ group in Contamines, flew back home (Siddique, Ibid.).
    • A 41-year-old Selangor man (Malaysia) “sought treatment at a private hospital for cough and fever” (Loh Foon Fong, “Malaysian man who travelled to Singapore for work among infected“, 5 February 2020).
    • A 51 year-old Singaporean man (case 39) reported symptoms. “He visited two GP clinics on Feb 3 and 5, respectively, before being admitted to NCID on Feb 6 (Tang See Kit, Ibid.). 
  • 30 January: The British man living in Mallorca started feeling unwell. He “show[ed] light symptoms” (Alexandra Topping and Nadeem Badshah, “New UK and Mallorcan cases linked to French ski resort cluster“, 10 February 2020).
  • 1 February:
  • 2 February (probably): the man from Selangor tested positive (Loh Foon Fong, Ibid.).
  • 4 February: A 36 years old Korean man, having attended the conference, self-quarantined at home, when he heard about the infected Malaysian. Indeed, he had had dinner in Singapore with him (Choon, Ibid.).
  • 5 February:
    • The sister of the Malaysian man tested positive (Joseph Kaos, Ibid.).
    • On that same day, the two Korean men tested positive (Choon, Ibid). This sparked an investigation by the World Health Organisation (Tan Tam Mei and Tiffany Fumiko Tay, Ibid.). This enquiry possibly led to the identification of further cases below.
    • The 27-year-old Singaporean man (case 30) also tested positive (Chang May Choon, South Korea reports 3 new cases, including two who attended conference in Singapore, The Strait Times, 5 Feb 2020).
  • 5 or 6 February: The Sussex business man tested positive in Brighton. He was transferred to special facilities in London (Siddique, Ibid.; Sarah BoseleyDenis Campbell and Simon Murphy, “First British national to contract coronavirus had been in Singapore“, 6 February 2020).
  • 7 February:
    • The 38 year-old woman from Singapore (case 36) tested positive (Tang See Kit, Ibid.).
    • Singapore increased its threat level for the epidemic (Siddique, Ibid.).
  • 8 February:
    • Five British nationals tested positive in the French Contamines-Montjoie. They had stayed with the Sussex businessman (The Guardian Coronavirus outbreak live, 10 Feb 2020, 16:34).
    • The 51 year-old Singaporean man (case 39) tested positive (Tang See Kit, Ibid.)..
  • 9 February:
  • All contact cases are traced.
  • 10 February: The UK Secretary of State declared “that the incidence or transmission of novel Coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health” (ibid.).
  • 12 February: The business man from Sussex, Steve Walsh is “discharged from hospital and is no longer contagious” (Alexandra Topping and Henry McDonald, The Guardian, 12 February 2020).
  • 16 February: A British citizen in the contact cases of Contamines-Montjoie tested positive in France (L’Express avec l’AFP “Coronavirus : un 12e cas détecté en France“, 16 February 2020).

This timeline shows how easily it is for an infection to spread completely unnoticed because actions are taken too late to stop it. Fortunately, in the case of the COVD-19, the case-to-fataliy rate is relatively low. Yet, the way it spreads remind us of worst case scenarios as depicted by Hollywood movies such as Contagion.

The spread of the contagion through this string of infection and clusters is now, hopefully, stopped, and no death will result. Yet, the risks taken were actually huge in epidemiological terms.

The cost involved in looking for multiplying cases must also be considered, as well as costs to reputation for example.

Furthermore, delayed actions also contribute to raise the level of anxiety and fear, possibly leading to even more drastic reactions by other types of actors.

For example, the Mobile World Congress (MWC) – which was to be held in Barcelona – was finally cancelled (e.g. Tom Warren, “The world’s biggest phone show has been canceled due to coronavirus concerns“, The Verge, 12 February 2020). Even though we would need detailed interviews to sort out factors and motivations in decisions, we noted that Sony and Amazon’s decision to withdraw from the event took place on 10 February, thus following the happenstance of the UK/France cluster of infection detailed above. The companies only stressed “concerns about the spread of the virus”. Ericsson, LG and Nvidia had also pulled out of the show (The Guardian Coronavirus outbreak live, 10 Feb 2020, 15:33).

Up until 18 February, the list of private actors taking similar measures be it for fairs, conferences, sporting events, tourism or manufacturing is everyday longer (e.g. Reuters daily “Latest on coronavirus spreading in China and beyond“; Reuters, “Coronavirus forces delay of trade fairs and conferences“, 18 February 2020).

Thus, late decisions regarding travel and screening actually appear to also have a large global and multidimensional impact. Considering the two coronavirus epidemics (the SARS and the COVID-19), it would be interesting, once the epidemics is over to make a thorough comparison of the two types of behaviour and of their cost.

Dangers to the supply chain of drugs and medicines and possible shortages

Late decisions may also become critical in terms of supply chain disruption. Here, however, the actions are not related to mobility and to the attempt at controlling the contagion. Actions are related to the necessity to live under conditions of epidemic outbreak.

For instance, on 14 February 2020, some European Health ministers, notably France warned of possible drug supply disruption, even though the EU commissioner took a reassuring stance (Toni Waterman, “EU health ministers warn COVID-19 could lead to drug shortage“, 14 February 2020). By 17 February, the EU Heads of Medicine Agencies (HMA) had issued no warning or report on the matter (see HMA, recently published up to 17 February 2020). The new stress impacts an already tense situation in terms of drug shortage as pointed out by the Finnish health minister (Ibid., Angela Acosta et al., “Medicine Shortages: Gaps Between Countries and Global Perspectives“, Front. Pharmacol., 19 July 2019).

In India, a “high-level committee constituted by the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP)” met to examine the situation regarding the export of drugs, in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic (Teena Thacker, “Panel mulls drug export curbs to avoid shortage“, The Economic Times, 10 February 2020).

Indeed, India acts as manufacturer of antibiotics with bulk drugs and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) imported from China. However, it also needs drugs for its own usage, while needing to make sure prices for these drugs do not skyrocket. Hence it may decide upon restricting exports. In that case, the risk to supply in other countries would increase. India must take a decision that protects first its citizens.

On 17 February 2020, this decision, right now for “12 medicines — mainly antibiotics, vitamins and hormones” appears as increasingly likely as the expert committee will hand in its report to the government on 18 February 2020 (Sushmi Dey, “Coronavirus outbreak: Government mulls export ban on 12 essential drugs“, The Times of India, 17 February 2020).

If India were too late, then it would have to face a possibly major crisis of drug shortage and thus a health crisis. Meanwhile, other actors need to factor in not only India’s possible decision regarding exports’ restrictions, but also its timing as it will impact reserves and the supply chain. Furthermore, if we imagine as is likely that finally India decide to restrict export, then others’ actors decisions which could have been timely otherwise may suddenly become too late. In turn a new sanitary crisis may be triggered elsewhere.

In the U.S., advocates and groups seeking to rebuild a national capability in terms of drug production point out the risk in terms of national security (Michele Cohen Marill, “The Coronavirus Is a Threat to the Global Drug Supply“, 28 January 2020). Here we also see cascading impacts at work: ancient decisions regarding production of drugs led to outshoring of key drugs’ components. From the point of view of ensuring indeed drug supply in case of a lasting outbreak in countries producing these key component – in our case China – decisions to face and mitigate the possibility of such possible shortages should have been taken before the epidemic outbreak. The problem for the U.S. as for other countries, is also heightened by India’s role as manufacturer and the possible exports’ restrictions.

So any decision taken once the outbreak is at work is probably too late, as capabilities to manufacture drugs and their components cannot be created instantaneously.

Of course, concerned actors need to carry out very detailed analyses per drug and component, factoring in all impacting variables, as explained previously.

Similar analyses will need to be done for any sector and any product.

In the meantime, the sudden awareness of the risks taken may well contribute to fundamentally change the international system with a redefinition of national policies in terms of drug production. The very norms of the international system here will likely be impacted. Indeed, the current trend towards a nationalisation of globalisation we observed in 2016-2017 is likely to be strengthened (see Helene Lavoix, Beyond the End of Globalisation – From the Brexit to U.S. President Trump, 17 February 2017).

When the outbreak lasts and could end

Here we would be in the case of actions that were taken too long after the epidemics actually ended. It is, however, not truly possible to identify such actions as the outbreak has not ended.

Nonetheless, for the sake of the exercise, we shall mentally, briefly, look at such a possibility in the case of the possible shortage of drugs. We shall also do it because, as the epidemics lasts and as other interests are imperilled, there is an increasing likelihood to see some actors using the argument according to which actions are not needed anymore to pressure others to see a relaxation of IPC.

For example, EU Chamber of Commerce President Joerg Wuttke warned that “The world’s pharmacies may face a shortage of antibiotics and other drugs if supply problems from China’s coronavirus outbreak cannot soon be resolved” (Gabriel Crossley, “China virus outbreak threatens global drug supplies: European business group“, 18 February 2020). This is a warning that is consistent with what we highlighted previously.

However, he also adds that China makes things worse”with a mandatory quarantine of arrivals from abroad as it battles the virus” (Ibid.). Mr Wuttke may be partly right, but the quarantine China imposes may also have as aim to avoid reinfection, which is always possible.

Should China relax the quarantine for arrivals from abroad, we may imagine that contagious foreigners could enter the country and create a new cluster of infection. In turn, this would just deepen all supply problems and not solve them. We would here be in a case of a relaxation of IPC measures taken too early.

However, Mr Wuttke’s point may be understood as the opposite, that some of China’s measures are lasting too long. For him, relaxation measures will be too late.

As an epidemic lasts, stress increases and multiple impacts, notably unfavourable, develop. To the least, what was the norm and the system has to change, when human beings in general fear change. Meanwhile, compared with the start of a new outbreak, knowledge and understanding has improved, but not enough to allow for the disappearance of epidemiological uncertainty. As a result, it also becomes increasingly difficult to assess the proper timing for all actions.

Timely is very difficult but benefits are numerous

As the cases explained above made clear, acting in a timely manner is very hard in the context of a new epidemic outbreak.

Compared with what we saw for the SARS epidemic, so far, the Chinese political authorities’ handling of the COVD-19 outbreak is considered as having progressed as lessons were learned (Cooper, Ibid., Nkengasong Ibid.). The WHO highlighted and welcomed the commitment and enormous efforts of China (Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), 30 January 2020).

On 15 April 2020, the WHO Director-General reasserted this assessment at the Munich Security Conference, interestingly stressing the time component:

We are encouraged that the steps China has taken to contain the outbreak at its source appear to have bought the world time, even though those steps have come at greater cost to China itself. But it’s slowing the spread to the rest of the world.

Yet, even in that case, uncertainty remains as to the global spread of the epidemic. The European CDC underlines both the Chinese efforts and the remaining uncertainty:

“The scale of these measures [those taken by China] is unprecedented and the economic costs of such measures to the Chinese economy are considerable. Although the effectiveness and collateral effects of these measures are difficult to predict, they are expected to limit the immediate likelihood of further spread of the virus via travellers returning from Hubei province and China in general…”

ECDC RAPID RISK ASSESSMENT Outbreak of acute respiratory syndrome associated with a novel coronavirus, China – third update. 31January 2020 – p.4.

Using these comments and assessments, we see that taking as timely as possible measures is commended internationally, even though incertitude may remain.

First and obviously, timely actions protect the population, which is or should be the first priority for any political authority that wishes to remain legitimate (Moore, Injustice, 1978).

Furthermore, the article assessing China’s efforts in Nature goes on highlighting a need for preparedness for Africa (Nkengasong, Ibid.). China is thus used as example for Africa (Ibid.). This may be an early signal that China will be able to extend its influence as a consequence of its handling of the new Coronavirus epidemic.

The feat of successfully building a 1000 bed modern real hospital in 7 days will also, most probably, be a component of future Chinese influence. Indeed, it very practically demonstrates capabilities and thus power. We shall note that all steps of the construction then opening of the hospital were monitored and publicised worldwide in international media and through social networks (e.g. Amy Qin, “China Pledged to Build a New Hospital in 10 Days. It’s Close,” The New York Times, 3 February 2020). This is not to say that it was all a plot by the Chinese authorities. However, the Chinese were smart enough to think long term. They widely publicised their immense efforts to control and overcome the COVID-19 epidemic outbreak.

The highly uncertain conditions surrounding an epidemic outbreak, the difficult anticipation, the need to assess properly the timing of actions, all contribute to the diffusion of confusing messages.

However, meanwhile, it also helps us progressing towards a better model to anticipate and plan ahead in the context of an epidemic outbreak.

We still have to make sure that our model is fit for the current epidemics and for the coming ones. Thus, we have to make sure that novel factors are also included. This is what we shall see with the next article.

Detailed references and bibliography

Tom Christensen & Martin Painter (2004) The Politics of SARS – Rational Responses or Ambiguity, Symbols and Chaos?, Policy and Society, 23:2, 18-48, DOI: 10.1016/ S1449-4035(04)70031-4.

Moore, B., Injustice: Social bases of Obedience and Revolt, (London: Macmillan, 1978).


Credit Featured Image: “This is a picture of CDC’s laboratory test kit for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). CDC is shipping the test kits to laboratories CDC has designated as qualified, including U.S. state and local public health laboratories, Department of Defense (DOD) laboratories and select international laboratories. The test kits are bolstering global laboratory capacity for detecting SARS-CoV-2.” [Public Domain]


The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly – 13 February 2020

(Credit Image: ESO/P. Horálek)

This is the 13 February 2020 issue of our weekly scan for geopolitical risks (open access). Using horizon scanning, each week, we collect weak – and less weak – signals. These point to new, emerging, escalating or stabilising problems. As a result, they indicate how trends or dynamics evolve.

Editorial: The spread and persistence of the COVID-19 epidemic outbreak is increasingly an issue of serious concern. Now, the new way to test the COVID-19 cases would appear to send a wind of panic across the world: it added more than 12000 confirmed cases over night. Meanwhile, tensions between Turkey and Syria rises.

scenario building, scenario, strategic foresight, online course, risk management, future
Embrace Uncertainty: Anticipate, Foresee and Warn!
Practically develop and enhance, step by step, your anticipatory analytical skills to tackle complex geopolitical, national and global security and political issues. Online course 1: from process to analytical modeling – Online course 2: scenario-building

Here, we focus on signals that could favourably or unfavourably impact private and public actors in international security. That field is broadly known under various names: e.g. global changes, national and international security, or political and geopolitical uncertainty. In terms of risk management, the label used is external risks.

The 13 February 2019 scan→

Horizon scanning, weak signals and biases

We call signals weak, because it is still difficult to discern them among a vast array of events. However, our biases often alter our capacity to measure the strength of the signal. As a result, the perception of strength will vary according to the awareness of the actor. At worst, biases may be so strong that they completely block the very identification of the signal.

In the field of strategic foresight and warning, risk management and future studies, it is the job of good analysts to scan the horizon. As a result, they can perceive signals. Analysts then evaluate the strength of these signals according to specific risks and dynamics. Finally, they deliver their findings to users. These users can be other analysts, officers or decision-makers.

You can read a more detailed explanation in one of our cornerstone articles: Horizon Scanning and Monitoring for Warning: Definition and Practice.

The sections of the scan

Each section of the scan focuses on signals related to a specific theme:

  • world (international politics and geopolitics);
  • economy;
  • science including Quantum Information Science, ;
  • analysis, strategy and futures;
  • AI, technology and weapons;
  • energy and environment.

However, in a complex world, categories are merely a convenient way to present information, when facts and events interact across boundaries.

The information collected (crowdsourced) does not mean endorsement.

Featured image: Milky Way above SPECULOOS / The Search for habitable Planets – EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars (SPECULOOS) is searching for Earth-like planets around tiny, dim stars in front of a panorama of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/P. Horálek.

Image for the online course: Science fiction becomes science fact, “The Future Battlefield“, Army ALT MagazineScience and Technology, July 18, 2018 – Public Domain

The Coronavirus COVID-19 Epidemic Outbreak is Not Only about a New Virus

The coronavirus epidemic is “a very grave threat” because “Viruses can have more powerful consequences than any terrorist action”. This is what the WHO Director stressed as an international meeting of 400 scientists and other experts convened in Geneva (Sarah Boseley, “Coronavirus should be seen as ‘public enemy number one’, says WHO“, The Guardian, 11 Feb 2020).

Thus, as for any threat of this magnitude, it is crucial to fully understand the danger to be able to design the right course of actions.

In this regard, this article explains that to understand the new Coronavirus COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) epidemic outbreak and its dynamics, we must consider not only the virus but also move to a larger framework taking into account all actors. This is congruent with the activation of a UN Crisis Management Team on 11 February 2020.

COVID-19, epidemics, scenario, risk analysis, strategic foresight, warning, threat anticipation
Factor in Coronavirus risks to your activity : commissioned reports
The US SEC urged listed firms to factor coronavirus risks in their financial disclosures (19 Feb 20). The UK FRC stressed (18 Feb): “Companies will need to monitor developments and ensure they are providing up-to-date and meaningful disclosures to their shareholders when preparing their year-end reports.” All companies should consider the future likely impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on their activity.
Contact us for commissioned reports helping you to plan ahead and fulfil your obligations. Also contact Dr Helene Lavoix directly.

However the UN team will focus on the “wider social, economic and developmental” implications of the outbreak.

Here what we argue is that the right model for an outbreak must consider all actors and interactions, not only because of non-medical impacts as done by the UN, but also because of feedbacks on the outbreak itself.

We previously highlighted that the new coronavirus 2019-nCoV was apparently surrounded by a mystery. This mystery was generated by confusing signals sent by various actors regarding the severity of the outbreak. There, we pointed out that the very uncertainty stemming from the novelty of the virus was one factor creating the mystery. Meanwhile, these confusing signals were also dangerous and could favour the very spread of the epidemic.

Yet, the story does not stop there. The confusing signals also emerge from the difficulty, for all actors, to handle the epidemic. The heightened difficulty is best understood if we consider all the actors and their interactions. This is the focus of this article.

First we explain that, to understand an epidemic outbreak, we must consider all the actors and their interactions and not focus exclusively on the new Coronavirus COVID-19. Then, we detail further this model. We explain how we can consider and model the interactions among actors to include feedbacks. We notably highlight a couple of key elements, including the importance of conflicting priorities and goals.

Revising our model for understanding an epidemic outbreak

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What is puzzling in the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, is, actually, the reactions of human beings. This is notably the case when these individuals have authority status, be it health authorities, political authorities or CEOs and boards of large international companies.

Looking at this behavioural human dimension is what will give us the key to understanding why actors send confusing information.

Indeed, we have here a strong signal that an outbreak is not exclusively a medical and hard science issue. It is also about human beings and the way they perceive, behave, and react to the disease. This was, for example, already outlined by Lofgren and Fefferman (2007), when the authors highlight the importance of the use of games to validate simulation models in applied epidemiology that allow for incorporating important human behaviours. Similarly, the 2002-2003 SARS epidemics was examined through the lenses of political science, and seen, for example “as a political process, involving political leaders, administrators and health professionals” (Tom Christensen and Martin Painter, “The Politics of SARS“, Policy and Society, 2004).

We are thus faced with a situation where actors interact according to various underlying processes. These processes can be understood through the use of sociological, political and international relations knowledge.

Including politics and political science

We have to include politics because the role of political authorities is crucial. This is exemplified in China, or more recently by the UK “Secretary of State [who] declares that the incidence or transmission of novel Coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health” (Department of Health and Social Care, “Secretary of State makes new regulations on Coronavirus“, gov.uk, 10 February 2020; e.g: The Guardian Live Coronavirus outbreak). Another instance is Singapore raising its threat level on 7 February 2020 (Aradhana Aravindan, John Geddie, “Singapore lifts virus alert to SARS level, sparking panic buying“, Reuters, 7 February 2020).

Taking into consideration international relations

We must also incorporate international relations because an epidemic in general, the COVID-19 outbreak in particular, is by essence potentially global while political authorities are involved. As a result, if we have many political authorities involved that are bound to interact, then we are in the realm of international relations.

The involvement of international organisations, such as the WHO, is an instance of this international relations’ layer. Furthermore, besides its actions, the WHO also promotes a specific agenda related to a multilateralism as the next sentence evidences: “This is exactly what WHO is for – bringing the world together to coordinate the response. That’s the essence of multilateralism, which is very important for the world.” (WHO Director-General’s remarks at the media briefing on 2019-nCoV on 11 February 2020).

Thus, here we see an international actor positioning itself at the international ideological and normative level (see the two schools of international relations, liberalism versus realism, e.g. Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian, “Political Realism in International Relations“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.); as well as the English School of International Relations theory, e.g. Tim Dunne, The English School, The Oxford Handbook of Political Science, Edited by Robert E. Goodin, Jul 2011).

Out of these interactions among actors, dynamics unfold. This framework will allow for understanding the outbreak and its mutiple impacts, monitoring it properly, warning about it, as well as planning in advance through strategic foresight and scenarios.

The actors’s interactions in the outbreak

Each (collective) actor involved in the outbreak must be understood not only in itself but also in its relationships to all the other actors. For each actor and group of actors, the beliefs and perceptions about oneself, others, the virus and the situation must be taken into account. We must also consider the way the beliefs and perceptions evolve. Indeed, these beliefs and perceptions will condition behaviour and actions.

Ensuring survival under conditions of uncertainty

For instance, initially, we focused on the importance of survival for each actor. Ultimately this remains true. However, we must locate this objective into a more adequate framework. For example, how one reaches survival matters. When actors start thinking in terms of survival is also crucial. Thus, we must factor in the uncertainty related to the novelty of the virus, because this novelty bears upon the actors’ assessment of the situation. As a result, this uncertainty will also weigh upon decisions and actions. Meanwhile, we must also consider competing objectives and the need for actors to balance these needs.

Reducing mobility is the only available strategy to buy time to develop a treatment or a vaccine

Let me explain this further. From the point of view of all political authorities, transmission must be stopped, while a way to cure people or make them safe, even if infected, is developed. Thus, time must be bought to allow scientists to understand the virus and, finally, to develop a vaccine as well as proper treatments.

As a reminder, there no vaccine nor treatment so far for the 2019-nCoV. If a possible vaccine has been found as claimed in Hong Kong, at least one more year will be needed for tests notably to make it ready for human use (David Ho and Cornelia Zou, “Hong Kong researchers develop coronavirus vaccine“, Bioworld, 4 February 2020; Video below by Elaine Ying Ying Ly “Vaccine for new coronavirus unlikely to be ready before outbreak is over, says Sars expert”, SCMP, 10 February 2020).

The WHO confirmed that a vaccine was at best 18 months away, i.e. July 2021 (Remarks 11 Feb 2020). Meanwhile, “Chinese scientists are testing two antiviral drugs” (Yawen Chen, Elaine Lies, “Coronavirus deaths in China spike, Japan has first fatality“, Reuters, 13 February 2020).

Considering this race where time must be bought, a “simple” action would be to stop all travels and contacts between human beings, as well as between human beings and animals. Stopping mobility, as detailed, for example, in Wu et al.’s epidemiologist modeling work is key to control an epidemic (Wu et al. Nowcasting and forecasting the potential domestic and international spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak originating in Wuhan, China: a modelling study, The Lancet, 31 January 2020).

Reducing mobility: how, for how long and how much

This is anyway at the basis for many initial public policies regarding the 2019-nCoV outbreak, but – and the but matters – mobility and contacts are not completely stopped, by design or by incapacity.

Capacity to reduce mobility

First, this simple action is not at all simple to implement in real life, all the more so if contacts with animals must also be taken into account.

For example, Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the epidemic has been all but locked down and in quarantine since 23 January 2020, people being commanded to stay home (CNA, “China halts flights and trains out of Wuhan as WHO extends talks“, 23 january 2020; “Quarantine” Wikipedia). Furthermore, measures to stop mobility were progressively reinforced (Amy QinSteven Lee Myers and Elaine Yu, “China Tightens Wuhan Lockdown in ‘Wartime’ Battle With Coronavirus“, The New York Times, 6 February 2020).

Yet, there has also been the entire period between the possible beginning of the epidemic and the time when it was noticed, then identified, during which mobility has not been stopped and thus during which infection has spread (e.g. Wu et al. Ibid., Lauren Gardner et al., “Update January 31: Modeling the Spreading Risk of 2019-nCoV“, John Hopkins CSSE, 31 January 2020).

Reducing mobility but for how long?

Up to 12 February 2020, the understanding of the disease and its development had led political authorities across the globe to create a system of containment and quarantine that lasted 14 days.

However, Chinese medical doctors and scientists published on 9 February 2020 on MedRVix a new study that could revise the length of the quarantine needed: Clinical characteristics of 2019 novel coronavirus infection in China, doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.06.20020974.

This study is not yet peer-reviewed, thus, is considered scientifically as not yet fit to be used for clinical purposes. Yet, in that case, considering the potential impact, can authorities wait? This study “extracted the data on 1,099 patients with laboratory-confirmed 2019-nCoV ARD from 552 hospitals in 31 provinces/provincial municipalities through January 29th, 2020”. Its authors appear to be 30 scientists and doctors from the China Medical Treatment Expert Group for 2019-nCoV. Thus assuming a modicum of check is done by MedRVix, the study so far looks genuine.

According thus to this study, “The median incubation period was 3.0 days (range, 0 to 24.0 days)”. This means, in the word of Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine, University of East Anglia (UEA) that

“…The suggestion that the incubation period may extend up to 24 days is definitely worrying, especially for people currently in quarantine who may, therefore, expect to spend longer is isolation.

“However, the median incubation period remains very short at 3 days. This means that a half of people who will get ill will have developed their illness within 3 days of the initial contact and the proportion of people with the really long incubation periods will be very small. …”

science media centre ” expert reaction to preprint on the incubation period of the novel coronavirus”, 10 February 2020).

The precautionary principle would demand that now all quarantines last not 14 days anymore but 24 days.

This shows how difficult it is to properly reduce the mobility when one knows so little about the virus.

Reducing Mobility versus other imperatives

Finally, other beliefs and goals also come into play that stop or delay drastic measures regarding mobility.

Let us continue with the telling example of Wuhan.

During the lockdown period between 23 January and 10 February 2020, for example, some high tech manufacturers considered as critical industries did not stop operations. This is in line with the importance of high technology and its development for China, with China’s national interest and objectives (see Helene Lavoix, “Actors and stakes: from IT companies to China and other states” in Artificial Intelligence, the Long March towards Advanced Robots and Geopolitics, The (Red) Team Analysis Society, 13 may 2019). For instance, “Yangtze Memory Technologies Co Ltd (YMTC), a state-backed maker of flash memory chips based in Wuhan” continues operations (Reuters, “Huawei, Chinese chip makers keep factories humming despite coronavirus outbreak“, 3 Feb 2020). Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), one key chip foundry for China, with “facilities in Tianjin, Shenzhen, Beijing, and Shanghai” also did not stop work (Ibid).

Allowing for other goals when anticipating and modeling the outbreak and its impact

Thus what we see here is the Chinese political authorities trying to achieve three competing goals. They try to stop the infection to spread outside Wuhan and the province of Hubei, yet to save as many as possible in Wuhan and Hubei. Meanwhile they also aim at not endangering industries critical to their national interest.

It is thus clear that we cannot understand the epidemic outbreak and anticipate its spread, its lethality and its multiple impacts if we only focus on the virus and reactions to it.

Modeling the complex set of interactions involved in an epidemic

Thus, the easiest model to follow to map out the complex set of interactions for an epidemic is to look, for each actor or group of actors, at their objectives and needs, as mediated by their beliefs, and at their capabilities, out of which results their actions. These actions will in turn impact the other actors, their perceptions and beliefs, their capabilities and finally their actions. We are here in the framework of complex feedbacks.

As exemplified above, the Chinese political authorities must make sure their citizens survive the epidemic, but also that all the other types of material security are provided, while present and future needs in terms of protection of foreign enemies, as well as domestic peace are ensured (for the mission of political authorities, Barrington Moore, Injustice…, 1978). Hence, for example the decision to reopen factories and to send back citizens to work, progressively, starting on 10 February 2020 (e.g. Bangkok Post, “China stutters back to work as virus deaths soar“, 10 February 2020).

China, most probably, assessed it controlled well enough the outbreak to take the risk to stop the worst kind of mobility reduction. It also could probably not afford any longer a situation with a probably very large cost to its economy, with companies unable to pay salaries and employees starting to be laid off (e.g. Reuters, “Coronavirus Death Toll Surges as Fears Grow for Chinese Economy“, The New York Times, 11 February 2020).

Meanwhile., the situation was also starting to seriously disrupt supply lines across the globe. For example, on 7 February 2020, the South Korean government had to ask Chinese provincial governments to start again production because Hyundai in Korea had to stop automobile production as its supply chain was disrupted (Joyce Lee, “South Korea asks China for help in resuming production at auto parts plants“, Reuters, 7 February 2020). Here the risk for China is also related to a loss of markets, as manufacturers could turn towards other providers, such as Turkey, Bangladesh or Vietnam, for example (e.g. Ceyda Caglayan, “Turkish clothes makers see orders shifting from coronavirus-hit China“, Reuters, 7 February 2020). This would lead to markets lost for a very long period.

In the meantime, these decisions were also accompanied by a 6 February 2020 Chinese decision to amend guidelines on classification. According to the new guidelines, patients who tested positive whilst not exhibiting symptoms would not be counted anymore as “confirmed cases” but only as “positive cases” (Keoni Everington, “China changes counting scheme to lower Wuhan virus numbers“, Taiwan News, 11 February 2020 and tweet below by freelance reporter Alex Lam.

Yet, there is controversy. For example, Sylvie Briand, WHO director of global infectious hazard preparedness “dismissed earlier medical studies of some people having transmitted the disease without showing signs, saying they actually had “minor symptoms” that went undetected.” (Stephanie Nebehay, “WHO working on recommendations for resuming flights to China“, Reuters, 4 February 2020).

On the other hand, we have scientific studies suggesting otherwise, such as Rothe et al. 2020 “Transmission of 2019-nCoV Infection from an Asymptomatic Contact in Germany“, NEJM; Hiroshi Nishiura, et al., and work by Prof Hiroshi Nishiura of the Hokkaido University as mentionned in Kyodo News, “Half of secondary virus infections occur in incubation period: study“, 8 February 2020).

Actually, medical doctors will certainly settle the matter, and Hiroshi Nishiura et al. call for more study on the possibility of asymptomatic infections ( “Estimation of the asymptomatic ratio of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) infections among passengers on evacuation flights“, medRxiv 11 February 2020).

In the meantime, we may consider that the problem may also become the detection of symptoms, what is considered as symptom and at which level of strength.

One way or another, contagion by people which did not develop symptoms severe enough to be detected may be a likely explanation for the infection across Europe triggered by what has been called the “super spreader” (Haroon Siddique, “‘Super-spreader’ brought coronavirus from Singapore to Sussex via France“, The Guardian, 10 Feb 2020).

Not counting asymptomatic but infected individuals as confirmed cases would automatically lower the number of confirmed cases. This may be – or not – what led to the improvement in count of cases seen in China.

We may wonder about the rationale behind the Chinese decision. However, we may not exclude that it is linked to the need to see economic objectives met, while infection by individuals with undetected symptoms is assessed as less dangerous than infection with obviously symptomatic individuals. Meanwhile, considering the fact the medical community still does not know that much about the virus, this decision may prove dangerous.

It is nonetheless difficult to infer any intention behind statistical changes because, on 12 February 2020, China also decided to change the way to diagnose those who tested positive and this led to a sharp increase in both confirmed cases and deaths (BBC News, “What is the new diagnosis method?” in Coronavirus: Sharp increase in deaths and cases in Hubei, 13 February 2020).

Interestingly, as for the decision not to count asymptomatic cases, it is a freelance reporter from Hong Kong and then the Taiwan News that relay the information, highlighting too the political and international relations character of the epidemic outbreak.

Actually, China here, with these two changes created a new uncertainty that could have negative impacts. Indeed, as China seeks to see airlines resuming flights (Nebehay, ibid.) and to see activity going back to normal, creating uncertainty may not be the best way to restore confidence.

Thus, each actor must take its decisions regarding the epidemics considering conditions of high uncertainty, factoring in its other missions, while also modeling all the other actors’ perceptions and resulting actions. To be able to do that at best, they thus need to anticipate, and notably to consider timing, which is what we shall see with the next article.

The highly uncertain conditions surrounding an epidemic outbreak and the need to balance properly sometimes conflicting goals all contribute to the diffusion of confusing messages.

It thus enhances the need for proper anticipation using a proper model that is constantly reevaluated and monitored. Meanwhile the importance of the timing of actions increases. This is what we shall see with the next article.

Detailed references and bibliography

Aradhana Aravindan, John Geddie, “Singapore lifts virus alert to SARS level, sparking panic buying“, Reuters, 7 February 2020.

BBC News, “What is the new diagnosis method?” in Coronavirus: Sharp increase in deaths and cases in Hubei, 13 February 2020

Boseley, Sarah, “Coronavirus should be seen as ‘public enemy number one’, says WHO“, The Guardian, 11 Feb 2020.

Caglayan, Ceyda “Turkish clothes makers see orders shifting from coronavirus-hit China“, Reuters, 7 February 2020.

Chen, Yawen, Elaine Lies, “Coronavirus deaths in China spike, Japan has first fatality“, Reuters, 13 February 2020.

Christensen, Tom & Martin Painter (2004) The Politics of SARS – Rational Responses or Ambiguity, Symbols and Chaos?, Policy and Society, 23:2, 18-48, DOI: 10.1016/ S1449-4035(04)70031-4.

Department of Health and Social Care, “Secretary of State makes new regulations on Coronavirus“, gov.uk, 10 February 2020;

Dunne, Tim, The English School, The Oxford Handbook of Political Science, Edited by Robert E. Goodin, Jul 2011

Everington, Keoni, “China changes counting scheme to lower Wuhan virus numbers“, Taiwan News, 11 February 2020.

Gardner, Lauren, et al., “Update January 31: Modeling the Spreading Risk of 2019-nCoV

Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian, “Political Realism in International Relations“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.);

Kyodo News, “Half of secondary virus infections occur in incubation period: study“, 8 February 2020.

Lavoix, Helene “Actors and stakes: from IT companies to China and other states” in Artificial Intelligence, the Long March towards Advanced Robots and Geopolitics, The (Red) Team Analysis Society, 13 may 2019).

Lofgren, E.T. and N.H. Fefferman. 2007. “The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds to Shed Light on Real World Epidemics”. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. 7:625-629.

Moore, B., Injustice: Social bases of Obedience and Revolt, (London: Macmillan, 1978).

Nebehay, Stephanie, “WHO working on recommendations for resuming flights to China“, Reuters, 4 February 2020

Nishiura, Hiroshi, Tetsuro Kobayashi, Takeshi Miyama, Ayako Suzuki,  Sungmok Jung, Katsuma Hayashi, Ryo Kinoshita, Yichi Yang, Baoyin Yun, Andrei R. Akhmetzhanov, Natalie M Linton, “Estimation of the asymptomatic ratio of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) infections among passengers on evacuation flights”, medRxiv 2020.02.03.20020248; 11 February 2020; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.03.20020248.

Reuters, “Huawei, Chinese chip makers keep factories humming despite coronavirus outbreak“, 3 Feb 2020

Rothe et al. 2020 “Transmission of 2019-nCoV Infection from an Asymptomatic Contact in Germany“, NEJM;

Science media centre ” expert reaction to preprint on the incubation period of the novel coronavirus”, 10 February 2020).

The Guardian Live Coronavirus outbreak.

Siddique, Haroon, “‘Super-spreader’ brought coronavirus from Singapore to Sussex via France“, The Guardian, 10 Feb 2020

WHO Director-General’s remarks at the media briefing on 2019-nCoV on 11 February 2020.

Zhong et al., Clinical characteristics of 2019 novel coronavirus infection in China, doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.06.20020974


Featured image: Photo by Zhou Guanhuai – A screen display showing “early discovery, early report, early quarantine, early diagnosis, early treatment” during Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in Hefei, Anhui, China, 8 February 2020 – [CC BY-SA]


The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly – 6 February 2020

(Credit Image: ESO/P. Horálek)

This is the 6 February 2020 issue of our weekly scan for geopolitical risks (open access). Using horizon scanning, each week, we collect weak – and less weak – signals. These point to new, emerging, escalating or stabilising problems. As a result, they indicate how trends or dynamics evolve.

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Here, we focus on signals that could favourably or unfavourably impact private and public actors in international security. That field is broadly known under various names: e.g. global changes, national and international security, or political and geopolitical uncertainty. In terms of risk management, the label used is external risks.

The 6 February 2019 scan→

Horizon scanning, weak signals and biases

We call signals weak, because it is still difficult to discern them among a vast array of events. However, our biases often alter our capacity to measure the strength of the signal. As a result, the perception of strength will vary according to the awareness of the actor. At worst, biases may be so strong that they completely block the very identification of the signal.

In the field of strategic foresight and warning, risk management and future studies, it is the job of good analysts to scan the horizon. As a result, they can perceive signals. Analysts then evaluate the strength of these signals according to specific risks and dynamics. Finally, they deliver their findings to users. These users can be other analysts, officers or decision-makers.

You can read a more detailed explanation in one of our cornerstone articles: Horizon Scanning and Monitoring for Warning: Definition and Practice.

The sections of the scan

Each section of the scan focuses on signals related to a specific theme:

  • world (international politics and geopolitics);
  • economy;
  • science including Quantum Information Science, ;
  • analysis, strategy and futures;
  • AI, technology and weapons;
  • energy and environment.

However, in a complex world, categories are merely a convenient way to present information, when facts and events interact across boundaries.

The information collected (crowdsourced) does not mean endorsement.

Featured image: Milky Way above SPECULOOS / The Search for habitable Planets – EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars (SPECULOOS) is searching for Earth-like planets around tiny, dim stars in front of a panorama of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/P. Horálek.

Image for the online course: Science fiction becomes science fact, “The Future Battlefield“, Army ALT MagazineScience and Technology, July 18, 2018 – Public Domain

The New Coronavirus COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) Mystery – Fact-Checking

The new Coronavirus 2019-nCoV epidemic outbreak is a mystery. Indeed, since it became a concern in China at the end of December 2019 and in the early days of January 2020 (WHO timeline), the various actors and authorities involved have been sending contradictory signals regarding the outbreak. This is perplexing, and all the more so considering the potential severity of the situation.

What is truly happening? Strategic foresight and risk analysis, i.e. analysis made specifically to anticipate and evaluate future dangers and threats and their impacts, is more than ever necessary. Strategic foresight and risk analysis will help us considering all factors involved while being as objective and impartial as possible.

In this first article, we shall first detail further the mystery and perplexing ways the outbreak appears to trigger. Then, we shall check a couple of the “truths” spread to have a baseline assessment of what is happening, using scientific and reliable official data.

In the next articles we shall offer an explanation regarding the reasons for the cacophony we hear. Finally, we shall highlight major uncertainties that need to be considered to assess the impacts of the new Coronavirus epidemic outbreak as a global threat, i.e. using all available knowledge to look at multiple impacts across domains.

The COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) Mystery or how to confuse people with contradictory signals

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On the one hand, we receive signals according to which the outbreak is very serious and a global public emergency. For example, on 30 January 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared we faced a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). China and notably the epicentre of the epidemic, the city of Wuhan in the province of Hubei, is close to a complete lock down and quarantine. Many countries repatriate their citizens from China and put them under quarantine. International companies operating in China close down their offices and airlines stop their flights with China. The list of these decisions lengthens by the day (Reuters, “Companies feel impact of coronavirus outbreak in China“, 5 Feb 2020).

On the other hand, even though it declared a PHEIC on 30 January, the WHO “does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on the current information available.” Some media, relaying experts’ analysis underline the need not to panic, and that, despite uncertainty, the new coronavirus is “not more dangerous than a seasonal flu epidemic” (e.g. Dan Vergano, “Don’t Worry About The Coronavirus. Worry About The Flu.’ Buzzfeeds, 28 January 2020; Maciej F. Boni, Associate Professor of Biology, Pennsylvania State University, “Is the coronavirus outbreak as bad as SARS?LiveScience, 30 January 2020).

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Officials and elected political authorities, such as U.S. President Trump, outside China also stress their control over the virus and that the risk to their country is minimal (e.g. Michael Wayland, “Trump says coronavirus outbreak is ‘all under control’ and a ‘very small problem’ in US“, CNBC, 30 January 2020).

This 4 February piece of video by the BBC is a perfect case in point:

The beginning of the video is ambivalent. It tries to reassure and put the outbreak into perspective, meanwhile it also tends to minimize the epidemic. Furthermore it is done with a measure of irony and sarcasm, that could aim at ridiculing thus silencing any other analysis.

Then, one switches angle. Now, on the contrary, the video focuses on this Chinese Doctor who did identify a serious epidemic outbreak… but was silenced. Ironically, what is reproached to the Chinese authorities – we shall learn only at the end that it was actually the provincial police, and not the central authorities who were guilty of misjudgement – is to have silenced someone… which is exactly what the first part of the video does.

Nonetheless, at the end of the video, the overall message one get is that yes, it is serious but only in China. And that, anyway, all this is more or less related to the type of Chinese regime. Thus we may assume that one is expected to believe that outside China, such outbreak would never develop. We are not very far from seeing something akin to scapegoating China. This is is likely counter-productive, and also a well-known cognitive bias that mars analysis and understanding (“Bias Favoring Perception of Centralized Direction”, Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, pp. 131-132; Module on biases in our online course Geopolitical Risks and Crisis Anticipation: Analytical Model). Meanwhile, the final message is that wherever, in China or elsewhere everything is for the best as the courageous Chinese Doctor turned whistleblower is about to be cured.

Unfortunately Dr Li Wenliang died on 7 February 2020. This sadly highlights even more the absurdity and danger of trying to deliver upbeat messages when facing a deadly epidemic outbreak.

Faced with such varied and often contradictory signals across platforms and actors, what should we believe? Is the situation dangerous and should we adapt our behaviour accordingly? Or could such a change of behaviour be ridiculous, even counter-productive? Is the new coronavirus outbreak just, in fact, business as usual? How can we be best prepared for the future if the possible futures look so uncertain? Are these conflicting signals sent creating, in themselves, anxiety? Do they favour polarisation as everyone tries to handle anxiety as s/he can? Why, finally, are such contradictory signals sent?

It is all about survival … within the “fog of epidemic”

Fundamentally the new Coronavirus epidemic outbreak, as any outbreak, is about only one thing: survival.

It is about survival for individuals. How likely am I to catch the disease? How likely are my loved ones to catch the disease? And most importantly, how likely are we to die if we catch it? Meanwhile, what to do to prevent being infected and then dying?

And it is about collective survival. How many and where can catch the disease? How many and where are likely to die? What can be done about infection and death, and by whom?

The collective questions and answers are actually more complex, as we shall see in the next article. But let us come back, for now, to the fundamental survival question.

We shall use data and measures given by official and recognised bodies and stemming from scientist work (see Resources to monitor the new Coronavirus COVID 19 (ex 2019-nCoV) Epidemic Outbreak and bibliography below).

Evolving and uncertain answers

The first and crucial element to highlight is that whatever the efforts of scientists and authorities involved, knowledge and measures about the epidemics are bound to change and evolve. Especially for new viruses, such as the COVID-19, when the first infections take place, our knowledge is close to nought. We do not even know if we are about to face an epidemic outbreak or not.

WHO – Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) – 31 Jan 2020

Thus, answers we get are uncertain. It is only when an epidemic is over that one can hope obtaining a completely clear understanding of it. And even once it is over, new discoveries and understanding can take place days, months, decades even centuries after it is over. For instance, there are still debates and new findings regarding the way the Black Death, the plague epidemic that devastated Europe in the 14th century and subsequent epidemics of plague until the 19th century, spread (e.g. Katharine R. Deanet al. “Human ectoparasites and spread of plague in EuropePNAS, Feb 2018; Kristi Rosa, “Black Death May Have Spread Via Human Fleas & Lice, Not Rats“, Contagionlive, 19 January 2018; ).

When one is in the midst of an epidemic, it is as with war. We have to accept something akin to the fog of war, i.e. fundamental uncertainty (Colonel Lonsdale Hale, The Fog of War, 1896).

Indeed, if we look at an epidemic as an ideal-type we can also see it as a war of a sort. On the one hand, we have the virus or the pathogen that races to infect as many hosts as possible to replicate itself. On the other, we have human beings who try to defend themselves and defeat the aggressor. Human beings develop understanding of what is happening through scientific actors, try to keep death at bay through medical actors, while all other actors try to do what is best according to the understanding provided by science. And this is done within the framework of a race, because scale and capability matters.

Considering this uncertainty, how can we answer our fundamental questions on survival?

How fatal is the new Coronavirus?

First estimative case-fatality rates for the COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV)

We can get an estimative answer to this question by looking at what is called the case-fatality rate. The case-fatality rate is a statistical measure that is calculated by taking the number of death and dividing it by the number of confirmed cases for a specific disease (Encyclopaedia Britannica). In other words, the case-fatality rate tells us how many people who are infected die.

Unfortunately, as long as the outbreak lasts, our knowledge of the fatality rate is uncertain. This is why the fatality rate must be constantly monitored to adapt actions in case of evolution.

On 2 February 2020 18:10 (CET), for the 2019-nCoV, the global case-fatality rate is 362/17489 = 2,069% (data John Hopkins’ time series). On 3 February, it is 427/20701 = 2,1236% and on 4 February 494/24597= 2,01%(ibid.)

On 13 February 2020, the case-fatality rate is 1370/60360=2,2697%

However, if we look at the sole Hubei province in China, where the outbreak originated and is so far most serious, we have as fatality rate for 2, 3 and 4 February 2020 350/11177 = 3,1314%, 414/13522 = 3,0617%, 479/16678=2,8720% (data ibid). These are the lowest rates for the province since fatalities have been recorded and tested for the new coronavirus.

On 13 February 2020, for the Hubei province, the case-fatality rate is 1310/48206=2,7175%.

18 February 2020 Chinese CDC center Study: overall case fatality rate of 2.3%, with wide differences according to age (the oldest, the more at risk), health (comorbid conditions) and exposure (health workers) (The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team, “The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19)“, …).

Comparing case-fatality rates

If we compare with other diseases and outbreaks, to have an idea of the severity in terms of fatality, we have the following table:

Disease If left untreated With treatment
Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) 2012-ongoing 34,4%
No known treatment
Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-Cov) 2002-20039,6% (WHO)

Plague 50-60% (WHO) Africa 9.2% Americas 6.2% World average (last 45 years) 11.8%
Yellow fever 15% only supportive care – no treatment Vaccination available
2019-nCoV1/ between 2,01% and 2,8720% – 3,0617%
2/ between 2,2697% and 2,7175%
1/ estimates from global and Hubei, 2 to 4 February 2020
2/ estimates from global and Hubei, 13 February 2020
seasonal influenza epidemics0.03% to 1,75%ECDC Factsheet about seasonal influenza
Malaria (falciparum) 0.3% (Other regions) – 0.45% (Africa)

We clearly see that the epidemic is so far more dangerous than the seasonal influenza epidemics, even though it is indeed less lethal than other coronavirus such as the SARS or other diseases such as the Yellow Fever.

On the danger of not taking the outbreak seriously when infection takes place as symptoms are mild and cases asymptomatic

Find an update on asymptomatic cases in our next article: The Coronavirus COVID-19 Epidemic Outbreak is Not Only about a New Virus.

Of course, “more fragile” people are more at risks but that is not an argument is it? Furthermore, the lump case-fatality rate calculated for the seasonal influenza epidemics also includes “more fragile” people. As a result, arguments trying to dismiss risks by comparison with the seasonal influenza epidemics are wrong. They could even be dangerous if they led people not to take the outbreak seriously.

Indeed, one of the potentially dangerous characteristics of the new Coronavirus 2019-nCoV, if we consider the early German cases, is that infected individuals are contagious while they are both asymptomatic and symptomatic, and that symptoms indicating infection can be very mild. In the video below pulmonologist Dr. Seheult, using Rothe et al. 2020 “Transmission of 2019-nCoV Infection from an Asymptomatic Contact in Germany“, NEJM, explains very clearly the situation as understood on 30 January 2020.

For the German cases, starts at 5:42, but the first part is also very interesting.

On 5 February 2019, the Chinese online professional community of physicians, medical institutions etc. confirmed that “Asymptomatic infection can also be a source of infection”. However, asymptomatic cases would be less infectious than symptomatic ones (ibid).

Thus, minimising or even mocking the outbreak, encouraging people not to get tested, not to seek medical advice and not to adopt basic hygiene gestures then could favour the spread of the infection. In turn, this directly heightens the number of death. In the meantime, it increases the burden on medical facilities, which can both favour infection and also, potentially, indirectly increase the case-fatality rate.

This leads us to wonder about contagion.

How contagious is the virus and how many people could be infected?

In epidemiology, a couple of measures are used to evaluate the propensity to propagation of a virus and the ease or difficulty to control an epidemic.

Estimated basic reproduction number for 2019-nCoV

R0 (R-nought) or basic reproduction number of an infectious disease is a measure that represents “the expected number of secondary cases produced by a typical infected individual early in an epidemic” (O Diekmann; J.A.P. Heesterbeek and J.A.J. Metz (1990). “On the definition and the computation of the basic reproduction ratio R0 in models for infectious diseases in heterogeneous populations”, Journal of Mathematical Biology 28: 356–382).

The larger the value of R0, the harder it is to control the epidemic.

On 29 January 2020, Qun Li et al. estimated that R0=2.2 (“Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia“, New England Journal of Medicine). This means that one infected individual is expected to contaminate 2.2 other individuals.

Joseph T. Wu et al. in their study published on 31 January 2020 use a R0=2.68 (Nowcasting and forecasting the potential domestic and international spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak originating in Wuhan, China: a modelling study, The Lancet).

Other R0 found in the literature are:

  • Read et al. R0= 3,8 (3,6 to 4) – 23 Jan 2020
  • Abbott et al. R0= 2 to 2,7 – 3 Feb 2020
  • Kucharski et al. R0= 1,6 to 2,9 – quoted by Danon et al. 12 Feb 2020
  • Liu et al. R0= 2,9 (2,3 to 3,7) – 25 January 2020

The efforts and the actions of the actors aim to reduce the R0 so that it falls below 1, which means the virus stops propagate (Qun Li et al., Ibid.). Once this objective is reached, then the epidemic is contained.

Comparing basic reproduction numbers

If we compare the new Coronavirus with other contagious diseases, we have the following table:

Disease Ro Transmission
Diphtheria  6-7 Saliva
Measles  12-18 Airborne
Mumps  4-7 Airborne droplet
Polio  5-7 Fecal-oral route
Rubella  6-7 Airborne droplet
Smallpox  5-7 Airborne droplet
Cholera  1.1 to 2.7 (Bangladesh & Zimbabwe outbreak) Direct: person-to-person Indirect contact: water
2019-nCov2.2 (Qun Li et al.)
2.68 (Wu et al.)
(estimates end January 2020)
SARS epidemic 2002-2003 2-4 (WHO 11/2003) Respiratory droplets
Influenza H1N1 (1918) 2-4Direct: airborne Indirect: touching infected surface and bringing hand to mouth or nose
EVD 20162.18 median (1.24-3.55)Direct: bodily fluids Indirect: contaminated material
Plague (pneumonic – bacteria) 1.3 Airborne infectious droplets
MERS 0.7 ECDC (31 January 2020)

Incubation and transmission of the 2019-nCoV

Meanwhile, we know that “the mean incubation period is estimated to be 5.2 days (95% CI, 4.1 to 7.0), with the 95th percentile of the distribution at 12.5 days, which supports using 14 days as an operational definition for contact tracing and monitoring” (ECDC update, 31 January 2020). The Chinese Medical Association highlights on 5 February 2020 that the “Incubation period is generally 3 to 7 days, up to 14 days, during which infectious period may exist”.

However, later studies (9 February 2020) suggests that “the median incubation period was 3.0 days (range, 0 to 24.0 days)” (Zhong et al., Clinical characteristics of 2019 novel coronavirus infection in China, doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.06.20020974).

The possibility of contagion as the individual is asymptomatic, as seen, also favours contamination (see update in The Coronavirus COVID-19 Epidemic Outbreak is Not Only about a New Virus).

New possible ways to become infected are also identified, tested, then confirmed or not, daily, and thus should be monitored.

As of 4 February 2020, the virus “can be transmitted through respiratory droplets or through contact. There is a possibility of fecal-oral transmission (see notably Coronavirus dedicated website). Meanwhile, the possibility of transmission through surfaces must also be taken into account.

Specific measures of hygiene as recommended by most countries’ official websites should thus be observed, as here, for example by the U.S. CDC.

All these are however only partial and potentially temporary answers to the question. The virus is not yet understood enough to give a simple answer to a simple question. Furthermore, it does not seem that there is such a thing as a simple answer in epidemiology. Indeed, results depend upon various actors’ behaviours.

First modelling of the epidemic outbreak

Regarding the potential number of cases, Joseph T Wu et al. (Ibid.) published estimates from a first modelling study focusing on China on 31 January 2020. Their results, reproduced below, are expressed for major cities in China in daily incidence rates, i.e. the probability of occurrence of seeing a confirmed case of 2019-nCoV in a population – here per 1000 people – in one day. Various hypotheses are made to consider diverse measures of control.

Joseph T Wu et al. Ibid. Figure 4 – Click to access image in the Lancet article

To conclude, we shall quote Wu et al final assessment at length. It reads:

“Vaccine platforms should be accelerated for real-time deployment in the event of a second wave of infections. Above all, for health protection within China and internationally, especially those locations with the closest travel links with major Chinese ports, preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies, and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.”

Joseph T Wu et al. Nowcasting and forecasting the potential domestic and international spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak originating in Wuhan, China: a modelling study, The Lancet, 31 January 2020.

We thus now have a better and more honest answer to our fundamental survival questions. Yes, the new Coronavirus outbreak is serious and should not be underestimated. All actors, including individuals should behave accordingly.

This explains, for example, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 31 January threat assessment cautiousness and conditional evaluation. The ECDC highlights low risks for the EU if detection and “appropriate infection prevention and control (IPC) practices” are implemented. Meanwhile, it warns that should the EU/EEA fail in its detection and IPC practices, then the risk of secondary transmission is high.

Thus, one possible factor creating the mystery of the contradictory signals is uncertainty. This uncertainty is in-built into the emergence of a new virus. However, it is also, most probably, the inability of our societies to handle peacefully this very uncertainty that favours these contradictory messages.

Another major factor triggering those confusing signals, as we started outlining, is that individual and collective survival are not exactly similar. This is what we shall see next.

References and bibliography

Abbott S, Hellewell J, Munday J, Funk S, Funk S. The transmissibility of novel Coronavirus in the early stages of the 2019-20 outbreak in Wuhan: Exploring initial point source exposure sizes and durations using scenario analysis. Wellcome Open Res, 2020 Feb 3.

Danon, Leon, Ellen Brooks-Pollock, Mick Bailey, Matt J Keeling, “A spatial model of CoVID-19 transmission in England and Wales: early spread and peak timing“, medRxiv, 2020.02.12.20022566.

Dean, Katharine R., Fabienne Krauer, Lars Walløe, Ole Christian Lingjærde, Barbara Bramanti, Nils Chr. Stenseth, Boris V. Schmid, “Human ectoparasites and spread of plague in Europe” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Feb 2018, 115 (6) 1304-1309; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1715640115.

Diekmann, O.; J.A.P. Heesterbeek and J.A.J. Metz, “On the definition and the computation of the basic reproduction ratio R0 in models for infectious diseases in heterogeneous populations”, Journal of Mathematical Biology 28, 1990: 356–382.

DXY (DXY.cn)Coronavirus dedicated website.

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 31 January threat assessment.

ECDC Factsheet about seasonal influenza.

Hale, Lonsdale, The Fog of War, 1896.

Heuer, “Bias Favoring Perception of Centralized Direction”, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.

John Hopkins CSSE: Tracking the 2019-nCoV spread in real-time – map and graphs.

Liu T, Hu J, Kang M, Lin L, Zhong H, Xiao J, et al. Transmission dynamics of 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). bioRxiv. 2020 Jan 26;2020.01.25.919787.

Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky SL, et al. Molecular Cell Biology. 4th edition. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000. Section 6.3, Viruses: Structure, Function, and Uses.

Lofgren, E.T. and N.H. Fefferman. 2007. “The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds to Shed Light on Real World Epidemics”. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. 7:625-629.

Nasir, Arshan et al. “Viral evolution: Primordial cellular origins and late adaptation to parasitism.” Mobile genetic elements vol. 2,5 (2012): 247-252. doi:10.4161/mge.22797.

Qun Li et al., “Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia“, New England Journal of Medicine, 29 January 2020.

Read JM, Bridgen JR, Cummings DA, Ho A, Jewell CP. Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV: early estimation of epidemiological parameters and epidemic predictions. medRxiv, 2020; 2020.01.23.20018549.

Rothe et al., “Transmission of 2019-nCoV Infection from an Asymptomatic Contact in Germany“, NEJM, 30 January 2020.

Shen, S., Qu, X., Zhang, W. et al. “Infection against infection: parasite antagonism against parasites, viruses and bacteria“. Infectious Diseases of Poverty, volume 8, Article number: 49 (2019).

The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team. The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19) — China, 2020[J]. China CDC Weekly 2020. – 18 February 2020.

WHO, Consensus document on the epidemiology of severe acute
respiratory syndrome (SARS)
, November 2003.

WHO, Summary of probable SARS cases with onset of illness from 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003, 21 April 2004.

WHO, MERS update, December 2019.

Wu, Joseph T et al. Nowcasting and forecasting the potential domestic and international spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak originating in Wuhan, China: a modelling study, The Lancet, 31 January 2020.

Zhong et al., Clinical characteristics of 2019 novel coronavirus infection in China, doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.06.20020974.


Featured image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay [Public Domain]


The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly – 30 January 2020

(Credit Image: ESO/P. Horálek)

scenario building, scenario, strategic foresight, online course, risk management, future
Check our new online course on scenario-building for geopolitical risks

This is the 30 January 2020 issue of our weekly scan for geopolitical risks (open access). Using horizon scanning, each week, we collect weak – and less weak – signals. These point to new, emerging, escalating or stabilising problems. As a result, they indicate how trends or dynamics evolve.

Brief Editorial: A very large part of the signals focuses on the current new Coronavirus 2019-nCoV outbreak, considering the high risks entailed. Meanwhile, however, the high tech battle does not relent. Libya and Turkey are also quite high on the list of concerns and signals.

The 30 January 2019 scan→

Here, we focus on signals that could favourably or unfavourably impact private and public actors in international security. That field is broadly known under various names: e.g. global changes, national and international security, or political and geopolitical uncertainty. In terms of risk management, the label used is external risks.

Horizon scanning, weak signals and biases

We call signals weak, because it is still difficult to discern them among a vast array of events. However, our biases often alter our capacity to measure the strength of the signal. As a result, the perception of strength will vary according to the awareness of the actor. At worst, biases may be so strong that they completely block the very identification of the signal.

In the field of strategic foresight and warning, risk management and future studies, it is the job of good analysts to scan the horizon. As a result, they can perceive signals. Analysts then evaluate the strength of these signals according to specific risks and dynamics. Finally, they deliver their findings to users. These users can be other analysts, officers or decision-makers.

You can read a more detailed explanation in one of our cornerstone articles: Horizon Scanning and Monitoring for Warning: Definition and Practice.

The sections of the scan

Each section of the scan focuses on signals related to a specific theme:

  • world (international politics and geopolitics);
  • economy;
  • science including Quantum Information Science, ;
  • analysis, strategy and futures;
  • AI, technology and weapons;
  • energy and environment.

However, in a complex world, categories are merely a convenient way to present information, when facts and events interact across boundaries.

The information collected (crowdsourced) does not mean endorsement.

Featured image: Milky Way above SPECULOOS / The Search for habitable Planets – EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars (SPECULOOS) is searching for Earth-like planets around tiny, dim stars in front of a panorama of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/P. Horálek.

Image for the online course: Science fiction becomes science fact, “The Future Battlefield“, Army ALT MagazineScience and Technology, July 18, 2018 – Public Domain

Resources to monitor the new Coronavirus COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) Epidemic Outbreak

The new Coronavirus COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) epidemic outbreak unfolds, with still much uncertainty. Thus, we must closely monitor it, using the best possible ressources available.

All actors should also develop scenarios to make sure they are ready across all possible futures.

Here, you will find a list of reliable sources to monitor the COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) epidemic outbreak.

Considering the danger of the spread of fake news enhanced and fed by the fear related to an epidemic, this is a contribution to struggling against dangerous perceptions and rumours.

Official and governmental sources about the COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) epidemic outbreak

World Health Organization (WHO): website for the outbreak of 2019–nCov.

Countries with outbreak and clusters (per alphabetical order)

China

COVID-19, epidemics, scenario, risk analysis, strategic foresight, warning, threat anticipation
Consider Coronavirus risks: commissioned reports
Listed firms are urged to factor coronavirus risks in their financial disclosures (US SEC urged ,19 Feb; UK FRC, 18 Feb 20). All companies should consider the future likely impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on their activity.
Contact us for commissioned reports helping you to plan ahead and fulfil your obligations. Also contact Dr Helene Lavoix directly.

Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC): website.

China CDC: distribution of infection of new coronavirus (updated map and figures).

China CDC: Tracking the epidemic

In Chinese: 新型冠状病毒疫情 = new coronavirus epidemic

China Global Television Network (official, China): Youtube Channel; Battle against novel Coronavirus (news update).

European Union

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: Novel coronavirus in China.

Italy

Ministero della Salute – Nuovo coronavirus (New Coronavirus) – Press releases, and news-type updates. No (not yet) any updated situation count as for Asian countries.

Iran

It is difficult to find sources of information on a par with Asia. The number of confirmed cases compared with the number of death considering the still very approximative case-fatality rate let us assume that Iran has not yet set up the capability to follow in detail the outbreak.

In the meantime, we may use:

Ministère de la SantéCoronavirus Page (the website may be quite long to load)

FARS NEWS (semi-official press agency): notably Medicine and Society

Singapore

 A Singapore Government Agency Website: COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) – among others, includes updates and follow-up of each case.

South Korea

South Korea CDC Coronavirus Infection-19 – among others, includes twice daily updates and follow up of each case.

In Korean: 코로나바이러스감염증-19(COVID-19) = Coronavirus Infection-19 (COVID-19).

Other countries with cases as well as notable CDCs

France

Gouvernement.fr: Info Coronavirus COVID-19

Germany

Bundesministerium für Gesundheit: Covid-19Aktuelle Informationen zum Coronavirus

UK

Gov.uk – Coronavirus (COVID-19): latest information and advice – Includes updates on the situation in the UK.

NHS: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

U.S.

U.S. CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): 2019 Novel Coronavirus.

Scientific contributions about the COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) epidemic outbreak

To follow the evolution of the outbreak in near real-time

scenario building, scenario, strategic foresight, online course, risk management, future
Check our new online course on scenario-building for Geopolitical Risks and Crisis Anticipation

John Hopkins CSSE: Tracking the COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) spread in real-time – map and graphs.

DXY (DXY.cn), the world’s largest online professional community of physicians, medical institutions, healthcare providers, and life science researchers. Established in 2000, over 4 million registered members in China and other countries in 2020: Coronavirus dedicated website updated stats, news and maps.

International Society for Infectious Diseases: ProMED-mail.

South Korea CDC Coronavirus Infection-19

In-depth understanding of the new Coronavirus as it develops

The Lancet: COVID-19 (ex 2019-nCoV) Resource Centre.

Elsevier: Novel Coronavirus Information Center.

Nature: News update on the coronavirus.

The New England Journal of Medicine: 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Imperial College London, MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis

BioRxiv: biological scientific papers waiting for peer-reviews – Coronavirus

MedRxiv: scientific and medical papers waiting for peer-reviews – Coronavirus

Institut Pasteur: Fiche Coronavirus de Wuhan (FR).

Other sources

Understanding epidemic with a game: Plague Inc. and Plague Inc.: evolved – Wikipedia article.

Explaining the coronavirus (Youtube): Medical Lectures (MedCram.com)


Credit featured image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay, Public Domain.


The Global Wildfire (1)

(Credit Image: Pierre Markuse, CC BY 2.0)

The global wildfire is engulfing the world. Throughout 2019, immense swaths of Australia, California, Alaska, Russia, central Africa, and the Amazon basin, were part of this immense bonfire. This conflagration took place after the historic fire seasons of 2018, 2017, 2016… (David Wallace Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, Life after Warming, 2019).

Those new giant wildfires signal a historic inversion: humans do no longer master fire. In fact, the current condition is nothing but a “rewildering” of fire, at a planetary scale. At such scale, rhythm and intensity, this global wildfire is becoming a new dimension of the current climate hyper siege. Thus, it must be understood in strategic terms.

From the Quest for fire…

Since the proto-historic period, fire is central to the development of human societies. It is a tool for eating, hunting, growing agrarian space, and resisting to cold. It is also instrumental in the development of minerals and metals. The flow of human history is also the history of the domestication of fire (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies, 1999).

In its “wildfire” dimension, it has been reduced and mitigated as a risk. Hence, large apparatus of technical and administrative management, mitigation and security exist in order to contain this risk. Fire is also a tool of war. It can be used on purpose to destroy cities and forests for strategic and operational purpose (John Keegan A History of Warfare, 1993, Mike Davis, Dead Cities: A Natural History, 2002).

… To the loss of fire

scenario building, scenario, strategic foresight, online course, risk management, future
Check our new online course on scenario-building for Geopolitical Risk and Crisis Anticipation

However, things are changing at a dramatic pace. As Hélène Lavoix puts it with vivid precision, we are now living in a “Burning World”. Thus, in this two parts article, we shall look at this new condition. In this first part, we shall see that the new “wildfire power” is overpowering the capabilities of modern societies to master it.

In other words, the rapid spread of mega-fires is becoming a wild – as in “undomesticated” – form of strategic attack against the modern urban conditions of living.

Notably, those depend upon the continuity of the global supply chains as well as on the productivity of the agro-industrial sector (Carolyn Steel, Hungry City: how food shapes our lives, 2013). Yet, wildfires and mega-fires can affect and even interrupt them. The strategic dimension of mega-fires is also both a product and a driver of the great acceleration of the modern urban and industrial development as well as of climate change.

Wild Fire power

Fire for war

During the Second World War, the invention of strategic bombing did put on fire hundreds of cities in Continental Europe, in Great Britain and in Japan. Thanks to the huge amount of experience thus accumulated, the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. air army (that became the U.S. Air Force in 1946), became great experts at the artificial use and development of urban fire through air bombing (Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 and John Dower, Cultures of war, Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima, 9/11/ Iraq, 2010).  

Then, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military made an extended use of napalm to put on fire entire swaths of the Vietnam jungle in order to destroy the vegetal cover that the North Vietnam army was using as a giant trap against the U.S. Army and marines.

These examples help us understand how “fire power” is also a way to use fire to exert a highly destructive form of power. Fire is a very efficient driver of mass destruction in urban and rural environments.

However, our rapidly warming planet is overthrowing the status of fire. Our planet thus becomes an unintended strategic actor.

Fire is coming

Thus, fire-power is not only a tool of the military arsenal anymore, but it is becoming a wild power in itself. Nowadays, wildfire is endangering the modern world, through its hybridation with the vulnerabilities of modern societies.

For example, on 5 August 2010, the Russian authorities declared the state of emergency for the territory of the Ozersk (“Russia declares state of emergency in nuclear town as wildfire blazes”, The Telegraph, 10 August 2010). They were reacting very strongly to the raging giant wildfires that were devastating the country since July. The wildfires were now threatening the city and its strategic nuclear waste reprocessing plant.

Thus, it was of strategic importance to isolate it from the fire, in order to prevent a possible nuclear disaster (Ibid.). This took place during the historical heat wave that struck Russia and Ukraine from late July to the end of the second week of August 2010.

If a direct link has not been established so far, climate scientists warn nonetheless that this kind of event is certainly going to be the new normal during the twenty-first century as climate changes (Alyson Kenward, “2010 Russian heatwave more extreme than previously thought”, Climate Central, March 17, 2011).

The 2010 heatwave triggered and fuelled immense wildfires that ravaged the Russian forests and lands. It also reduced by more than 10% the Russian and Ukrainian production of cereals. As a result, the world cereal price increased. In turn, the price of bread in the Arab world went up during the fall and winter 2010, as well as throughout 2011 (Michael Klare, “The Coming global explosion”, TomDispatch, April 21, 2013), which fuelled the Arab Spring.

Global Wildfire

In May 2016, from North America to Russia, places especially vulnerable to climate change were shaken by immense wildfires. The mega wildfire that devastated the region of Fort Mc Murray, in the Alberta State of Canada was prominent among these extreme events (Bryan Alary, “Fort Mc Murray blaze among “most extreme” of wild fires says researcher”, Phys.org, May 9, 2016).

This humongous fire took place directly in the heartland of the world-famous tar sands exploitations. Those turned Canada into an oil product exporter (Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar sands: dirty oil and the future of a continent, 2010).

Mega fire, mega danger

The Alberta wildfire triggered the emergency evacuation of Fort Mc Murray. It triggered a de facto weakening of the tar sands’ production. The fire had endangered the people, as well as the industrial installations and the numerous related investments.

Meanwhile, future insurance costs sharply increased. (Maria Galucci, “Fort Mc Murray wildfires: Canada’s oil sands producers cut output as Alberta fires rage”, International Business Time, O5/04/16). In other words, these extreme weather events demonstrate how much environmental global change puts modern societies, economies and business models at risk.

Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to hide  

Then, in 2018, wildfires ravaged Europe, from Greece to Scandinavia, while the Midwest and California fought off two mega-fires. In 2019, a global storm of fire swept the world and ravaged the Amazon basin, central Africa, Europe, Siberia, Alaska and, finally Australia (Fires, NASA Earth Observatory).

In this country-continent, giant mega-fires are coalescing. This process is turning the west and south western part into a giant fire trap. So far, it has killed more than a billion animals. It also ravaged rural areas and altered the superficial part of the soil.

This is particularly worrying, because the state of soils and of their biodiversity is a major condition of the water cycle and of agriculture (Sarah Maunder, “Bushfire-ravaged soil takes up 80 years to recover, research finds”, ABC, 22 January 2019).

A Burning World

In other words, modern societies do not control the fire anymore. Thus climate change also means that, as written by Hélène Lavoix (“When Denial and Passivity Verge on Stupidity” – The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly – 9 January 2020), from now on, we live in a burning world.

In other terms, the exceptional burning condition known by European cities and the South Asian jungles during the Vietnam/ Cambodia/Laos war, is now imposed upon modern cities all around world. It is becoming the equivalent of a World War 3 being waged by a global “adversary” against each and every nation on Earth.

Thus, the global mega-fire is becoming a driver of the hyper-siege. This means that contemporary societies are being literally “immersed” into the new and adverse geophysical conditions that are besieging them (Jean-Michel Valantin “Hyper Siege: Climate change versus U.S National security”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 31 2014, and Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, The fate of the Humans in the Anthropocene, 2017).

Moreover, the mega-fires are producing mammoths amounts of greenhouse gas. Thus, they become drivers of climate change and of its acceleration. This process reinforces the intensity of the hyper siege (Emma Newburger, “Massive Arctic wildfires emitted more CO2 in June than Sweden does in one year“, CNBC, August 17, 2019 and Chris Baynes, “Australia wildfires: Devastating blazes pushing global CO2 levels to record high“, The Independent, 25 January, 2020″.)

It also means that climate change turbo-charges wildfires and mega-fires. Those are thus becoming a political, security and social condition.

We shall study the political and geopolitical consequences of the installation of our modern societies on this new planet that is the Burning World in the second part of this article.


Credit featured image: Wildfire near Lake Echo, Tasmania, Australia, 25 January 2019 – Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2019], processed by Pierre MarkuseCC BY 2.0.