By Mark Hosenball and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON, Mar 30 (Reuters) – As US spy agencies seek to make a precise picture of coronavirus outbreaks around the world, they are finding serious gaps in their ability to assess the situation in China, Russia and North Korea, according to five official sources familiar with the reports.
The agencies also have limited insight into the full impact of the pandemic in Iran, although information on infections and deaths between the elite and the people is increasingly available on social media and official channels, two sources said.
Agencies are not only looking for precise numbers, but also for any signs of the political ramifications of how the crisis is being handled.
Intelligence agencies began reporting on the coronavirus in January and provided early warnings about the outbreak in China, which originated in Wuhan City late last year, the sources said, asking not to be identified so they could speak freely about intelligence matters.
The pandemic has already left nearly 740,000 cases in some 200 countries and territories, according to figures compiled by Reuters. The United States now has the highest number of infected, more than 152,000.
North Korea claims not to have had a single case even though it borders China, but has asked international aid agencies for supplies such as face masks and test kits.
A US source said that “we don’t know” anything about the magnitude of the problem in the hermetic communist country.
“It is a country with nuclear weapons, where things that could destabilize the government would be of great interest to the United States,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, an expert at the Center for Global Development, who headed the United States’ Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. between 2013 and 2017.
Russian authorities are considering a quarantine nationwide after registering the largest daily increase in coronavirus cases for the sixth consecutive day, for a total of 1,836 infected and nine deaths.
Knowing the full extent of the spread of the coronavirus in Russia could be critical, as it shares borders with 14 other countries and is a hub for trade and travel.
China, which has reported more than 81,000 cases and over 3,300 deaths, says no new cases are originating in its territory, and remains cautious with those returning from abroad.
The US view of China’s claim that there are no new internal cases “may be partly true,” according to a source. But the agencies remain skeptical that the Chinese have the virus under control, he added.
(Edited in Spanish by Javier Leira)