Spies Who Hunted Bin Laden Want In on Virus Control Sleuthing

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The same U.S. intelligence agency that helped pinpoint terrorist leader Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout is seeking to develop new tools to weigh the use of mask mandates, travel restrictions, and other efforts to prevent coronavirus infections.

Researchers at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency are now preparing contracts to vacuum up pandemic data from around the world and develop software to model the effectiveness of restrictions and preventative measures, in the absence of a medical cure.

The $600,000 effort could put the software in the hands of the federal government, states, and the military by next year.

Jeoffrey Guillemard/Bloomberg
Protective N95 face masks.

Mask requirements and social distancing have reduced cases of Covid-19 as the Defense Department and federal government rush for a vaccine, but they also come with steep costs to society and the economy, said Erik Scully, a research and development scientist for the NGA who is leading the project.

“Closures may impact unemployment. They may influence supply chains. They may impact local businesses or even the mental health of the populace,” Scully said. The agency’s goal is to develop software that can “come up with the optimal combination of non-pharmaceutical interventions that will work in a particular region.”

`Operation Warp Speed’

The U.S. continues to struggle with regional outbreaks of the disease that have shuttered businesses and forced many public schools to offer distance learning this fall. The restrictions, even less burdensome ones such as mask mandates, have stoked deep political divisions.

Hopes are pinned on the development of a vaccine, possibly by the end of the year, but the ultimate success of that effort is unknown. The Defense Department and Department of Health and Human Services are heading up Operation Warp Speed, which aims to stockpile vials and syringes, find an effective vaccine, and distribute it to hundreds of millions of Americans.

In the meantime, the new software capabilities being developed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which is part of the Defense Department and the intelligence community, could ease the damage and economic pain caused by the restrictions.

Scully said the finished software could be widely shared or even made public, though no final decisions have been made. That could allow it to be used by states as they grapple with Covid-19 flare-ups, by the National Guard as it plans outbreak responses, by the military, or by other areas of the federal government.

The agency is planning to spend as much as $600,000 on the pandemic research effort as part of one or more contracts, and the solicitation is posted here on the federal government’s System for Award Management. It will review abstract proposals this month and the deadline for final proposals is Sept. 14. Scully said it hopes to sign contracts this year.

Bin Laden Search

In 2011, NGA personnel used sensor and drone data to build a three-dimensional rendering of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, before the raid that killed him. The pandemic project will likely use a wealth of public and commercially available data that could include geographically tagged social media to model pandemic measures and public behavior.

“We’re leaving it open to the researchers to propose the data sets that they are interested in exploiting,” Scully said. “Social media could be one sort of a data set that could be useful but there are a wide variety of data sets that are sort of emerging as part of this outbreak.”

None of that data will come from inside the U.S. because the spy agency generally doesn’t operate inside the country, much as the active-duty military isn’t typically deployed domestically.

Applicants have already been asking what countries should be the focus of the research. China had one of the earliest outbreaks, South Korea had significant success with its response, and Italy suffered a major outbreak that triggered national travel bans.

“We are completely indifferent to the region of focus,” Scully said. “The idea is that we want the applicant to produce a proof of concept that we might be able to adapt to other regions as new outbreaks occur in the future.”

With assistance from Robert Levinson

To contact the reporters on this story: Travis J. Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com; Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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