Public health and national security experts shake their heads when President Donald Trump says the coronavirus “came out of nowhere” and “blindsided the world.”
They’ve been warning about the next pandemic for years and criticized the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to dismantle a National Security Council directorate at the White House charged with preparing for when, not if, another pandemic would hit the nation.
“It would be nice if the office was still there,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health, told Congress this week. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a mistake (to eliminate the unit). I would say we worked very well with that office.”
The NSC directorate for global health and security and bio-defence survived the transition from President Barack Obama to Trump in 2017.
Trump’s elimination of the office suggested, along with his proposed budget cuts for the CDC, that he did not see the threat of pandemics in the same way that many experts in the field did.
“One year later I was mystified when the White House dissolved the office, leaving the country less prepared for pandemics like COVID-19,” Beth Cameron, the first director of the unit, wrote in an op-ed Friday in The Washington Post.
She said the directorate was set up to be the “smoke alarm” and get ahead of emergencies and sound a warning at the earliest sign of fire — “all with the goal of avoiding a six-alarm fire.”
It’s impossible to assess the impact of the 2018 decision to disband the unit, she said. Cameron noted that biological experts remain at the White House, but she says it’s clear that eliminating the office contributed to what she called a “sluggish domestic response.” She said that shortly before Trump took office, the unit was watching a rising number of cases in China of a deadly strain of the flu and a yellow fever outbreak in Angola.
“It’s unclear whether the decision to disband the directorate, which was made in May 2018, after John Bolton became national security adviser, was a tactical move to downgrade the issue or whether it was part of the White House’s interest in simplifying and shrinking the National Security Council staff,” Cameron says.
The NSC during the Obama administration grew to about 250 professionals, according to Trump’s current national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. The staff has been cut to about 110 or 115 staffers, he said.
When Trump was asked on Friday whether closing the NSC global health unit slowed the U.S. response, the president called it a “nasty” question because his administration had acted quickly and saved lives.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Trump said.
Earlier, when asked about it, he said: “This is something that you can never really think is going to happen.”
For many years, the national intelligence director’s worldwide threat assessment has warned that a flu pandemic or other large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease could lead to massive rates of death and disability that would severely affect the world economy. Public health experts have been blowing whistles too.
Back in mid-2018, Fauci told Congress: “When you have a respiratory virus that can be spread by droplets and aerosol and … there’s a degree of morbidity associated with that, you can have a catastrophe. … The one that we always talk about is the 1918 pandemic, which killed between 50 and 100 million people. … Influenza first, or something like influenza, is the one that keeps me up at night.”
The White House says the NSC remains involved in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
A senior administration official said Friday that the NSC’s global health security directorate was absorbed into another division where similar responsibilities still exist, but under different titles. The work of co-ordinating policy and making sure that decisions made by Trump’s coronavirus task force are implemented is still the job of the NSC.
Some lawmakers aren’t convinced.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., and Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, have introduced a bill that would require future administrations to have experts always in place to prepare for new pandemics.
“Two years ago, the administration dismantled the apparatus that had been put in place five years before in the face of the Ebola crisis,” Connolly said. “I think, in retrospect, that was an unwise move. This bill would restore that and institutionalize it.”
Connolly said the bill is not meant to be critical of the Trump administration. He said it’s a recognition that Trump had to name a coronavirus responder just like Obama had to name one for Ebola in 2014. “We can’t go from pandemic to pandemic,” Connolly said.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 4 passed the measure, which is co-sponsored by 37 Democrats and five Republicans. The full House has not yet voted on the bill.
Chabot said one of the bill’s main goals is to would require personnel to be permanently in place preparing for pandemics.
“Specifically, we need someone, preferable at the NSC, to quarterback the U.S. government’s response since that response inevitably involves several agencies across the government,” Chabot said. “Our bill would make this position permanent.”
Former Obama administration officials insist that the Trump White House would have been able to act more quickly had the office still been intact.
“I think if we’d had a unit and dedicated professionals looking at this issue, gaming out scenarios well before … we might have identified some of these testing issues,” says Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s homeland security adviser, said at a recent forum on coronavirus. “There would have been folks sounding the alarm in December when we saw this coming out of China, saying ‘Hey, what do we need to be doing here in this country to address it?”
Ron Klain, who managed the government response to contain and mitigate the spread of Ebola in 2014, agreed.
“If I were back in my old job at the White House … I’d be pushing to have us do 30 million tests — to test people in nursing homes, to test people with unexplained respiratory ailments, to test the people who regularly visit nursing homes, to test health care workers,” Klain said recently at the event hosted by the Center for American Progress in Washington.