Trump administration cut CDC expert monitoring outbreaks in China months before coronavirus: report

“We are all paying the price for this gross negligence," Sen. Chris Van Hollen says

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 23, 2020 7:58PM (EDT)

Donald Trump (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)

The Trump administration eliminated a key public health office in Beijing that detected disease outbreaks in China in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Reuters reports.

Dr. Linda Quick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's resident adviser to the U.S. Field Epidemiology Training Program in China, left her position in July. The move came after she learned that her position would be eliminated in September, months before the new coronavirus began to slowly spread in November, according to the report.

"It was heartbreaking to watch," Bao-Ping Zhu, one of Quick's predecessors, told the outlet. "If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster."

Zhu said Quick could have provided real-time information to U.S. officials early in the outbreak, particularly when China was still trying to hide information about the virus. The CDC said it first learned of the virus on Dec. 31. It did not warn the public about the virus until Feb. 25.

Infectious disease experts told Reuters that officials in the U.S. could have used Quick as a source on the ground during the outbreak.

"It is possible that we would know more today about how this coronavirus is spreading and what works best to stop it," former CDC Director Thomas Frieden told the outlet.

The CDC said in a statement to Reuters that eliminating the position "had absolutely nothing to do" with it "not learning of cases in China earlier."

Asked about the report on Sunday, Trump claimed that it was totally "wrong."

"This is just like the other stuff that you, not you, but the press was asking. We actually gave CDC more money, not less money — they said we defunded, it turned out it was more money," Trump said. "Every one of those things that was said were 100 percent wrong, and this sounds like another one."

While it is not clear if media outlets reported that Trump "defunded" the CDC, it is clear that the president sought to drastically cut CDC funding in each of his budget proposals. Acting White House budget chief Russ Vought told Congress earlier this month that the administration did not plan to amend its 2021 budget, which would cut the CDC's funding in by 15% despite the ongoing outbreak.

The Trump administration previously asked for a $65 million budget cut to the CDC's small center on emerging and zoonotic (meaning animal-to-human transmitted) infectious diseases in 2018 (or a 10% cut), then a 19% reduction in 2019 and a 20% reduction in 2020. While most of this funding was restored by Congress, Trump still succeeded in reducing the overall spending for relevant CDC programs by 10% from what it was in 2016 after being adjusted for inflation. He also proposed cutting the overall CDC budget by $1.3 billion in the 2020 fiscal year.

Seeking to gut the CDC's funding was only one of the moves the administration made that weakened America's ability to fight the current outbreak. In 2018, it eliminated the White House National Security Council's pandemic team, which had warned for months that the U.S. was unprepared for a disease outbreak.

"It would be nice if the office was still there," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified to Congress last week. "I wouldn't necessarily characterize it as a mistake (to eliminate the unit). I would say we worked very well with that office."

Of course, the Trump administration did receive ample warnings before the outbreak hit the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services spent months simulating a respiratory virus that began in China and went on to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. The department's experts warned in an October 2019 report that the country was unprepared for such an outbreak and detailed numerous fixes that were ignored, according to The New York Times.

Despite Trump's claim that no one saw the pandemic coming before the CDC's late February warning, intelligence agencies submitted classified warnings about the global threat posed by the coronavirus in January and February, The Washington Post reported.

Some Democrats said on Twitter that the latest report showed that "there is no end to the Administration's incompetence."

"The Trump Administration must be held to account for this failure—and others like it—that delayed America's response to COVID-19," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., tweeted.

As the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. skyrocketed to more than 39,000, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wrote, "We are all paying the price for this gross negligence."

Salon's Matthew Rozsa contributed to this report. 

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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