President Trump’s governing strategy is on a collision course with a novel foe. Can alternative facts stop a pandemic?
Some of the nation’s leading public-health experts assembled before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week with some worrisome warnings: The dangerous Wuhan novel coronavirus is probably already in the United States in greater numbers than we know and should show itself in clusters in the coming weeks. There’s reason to doubt its spread will die down when the weather warms. And it could ultimately affect hundreds of thousands of Americans.
But Trump has never been one to embrace expert opinion, whether on climate change or on windmill cancer.
“By the way, the virus,” Trump told supporters at a political rally this week. “Looks like by April ... when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
He told a meeting of governors that he “had a long talk with President Xi” of China. “He feels ... that, as I mentioned, by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus. So ... we’re in great shape in our country. We have 11, and the 11 are getting better. Okay?”
Okay! ... But the experts have a rather different take.
Luciana Borio, the former director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, said the number of actual cases is “much, much higher” than reported and “very concerning for a pandemic.” She said it is “sufficiently lethal to stress severely the health care system” and “we need to brace ourselves for difficult weeks or months to come. .... “We’re going to see a lot more cases in the United States in the near future.”
Julie Gerberding, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that “we simply don’t have the surge capacity” to handle a widespread outbreak ...” she said.
And Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration ... called for expanded testing because we’re “capturing 25 percent of cases at best.” Gottlieb predicted: “We’re going to see those outbreaks start to emerge in the next two to four weeks.”
This is the time for a Manhattan Project, to put all public and private energy into vaccine and antiviral development, diagnostics and expanded hospital capabilities. If the worst happens, we’ll be better prepared. If not, we’ll be prepared for the next pandemic.
Instead, Trump this week proposed cutting U.S. funding for the World Health Organization in half. He has also proposed a nearly 16 percent cut to the CDC and a nearly 8 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health, though officials say they won’t cut from infectious-disease work. Trump’s budget director says the virus isn’t being taken into account in economic forecasts. And Trump is parroting advice from the Chinese regime.
Trump administration officials were asked to participate in the Senate hearing; they refused, instead cooperating in a closed briefing later with senators.
“I’m disappointed,” said the chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “I thought I had convinced them to come. ... It’s extremely important the public understands these things.”
Had they come, they would have heard the experts knock down Trump’s claims that we’re in great shape, that there are only 11 cases here and that China has handled the outbreak well.
Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, said there are generally seven or eight unseen cases for every known case. “It may be hundreds of thousands of cases” here ultimately, she warned.
Gottlieb warned that even if the fatality rate drops from the current 2 percent to 0.2 percent, that could still “be quite devastating.”
As for the virus receding in warm weather, Gottlieb pointed out that there’s been some spread in Singapore, where it’s 90 degrees.
They also cautioned that they can’t be sure that current antiviral drug trials will be successful or that a vaccine will be available in a year. And many raw materials for drugs come from China — a gaping vulnerability.
Johnson seemed alarmed. “This ought to be a huge wake-up call,” he said, for domestic medical manufacturing.
In one of the few bright points, Gottlieb (who’s on Pfizer’s board) said that “we probably could do this quickly if we wanted to” and avoid China’s “critical choke-point in supply.”
Alternatively, we can wait for the virus “miraculously” to disappear.
Dana Milbank is a liberal columnist for The Washington Post.