January 2020. That’s when things went bad. That’s when it all went wrong. That’s when high officials in our government knew something awful was happening and, I believe, knew we had to do something. Why we didn’t will be the subject of examination for years to come. If we do not learn and make the public aware of what we have learned, the tragic health crisis we are currently experiencing will most certainly happen again, and sooner than most people realize. By late January every nation had enough information to suspect that something very dangerous was unfolding on a worldwide scale.
The three most important questions historians and journalists will soon ponder are, (1) exactly when was CDC Director Robert R. Redfield apprised of a severe disease of unknown origin erupting in Wuhan, (2) when was Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar apprised of, essentially, the same information and (3) what did Director Redfield and Secretary Azar do with that information. Available information indicates they both knew of the outbreak of a severe respiratory disease of unknown origin in China during the first three days of January. They either (1) did nothing, (2) did something, or (3) were rebuffed at a higher level.
“Nobody ever thought this (the pandemic) would be a problem…nobody saw this coming,” the President insisted at a White House briefing in early March. Well, that just isn’t true. It is, indeed, embarrassingly false. We suspect that nearly all 4700 board-certified immunologists, 8,000 epidemiologists, and 8500 infectious disease doctors in the nation, and virtually every professional scientist at the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) knew the chronic potential for a viral pandemic was always very high. They would not have been surprised that this one came along.
CDC Director Redfield and HHS Secretary Azar certainly saw the potential of Covid-19 erupting early in January. We know that the Administration’s Senior Trade Advisor, Peter Navarro, saw this coming because he sent an urgent letter to the White House later in January which forecast exactly what could happen. Even private citizen and infectious disease crusader Bill Gates predicted the potential of such an outbreak five years ago.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the Allergy and Infectious Disease Division of the National Institutes of Health has been pilloried by Fox and other social media outlets for taking a cautious position on February 29th stating there was, at that time, no evidence of community spread and that it was, therefore, not necessary for people to change their behavior. He did warn, however, that that could abruptly change as, indeed, it did. We could find no one in the public health service, however, who was dismissive of the threat.
We could find only one government official who, as late as March 6th was publicly declaring that, “within a couple of days, it was going to be down to close to zero.” That, of course, was over 1.5 million US infections and 90,000 US deaths ago.
There is currently a major effort underway to blame China for America’s late response to Covid-19. That is patently ridiculous—not because China was forthcoming and candid (they weren’t), but because we don’t maintain the $6.5 + billion investment in our CDC to wait for a phone call from China or any other country to tell us when it is time to worry. And, to be clear, while the Chinese government, initially, tried to publically manage and downplay the danger of Covid-19, China’s public health professionals notified both the US CDC and the World Health Organization that something very bad was happening in Wuhan. The Chinese sequenced the RNA of Covid-19 by late January and made that information immediately available to the international community.
Germany had a test ready to go and made it available to the international community by mid-January. South Korea, likewise, made the decision to begin testing for Covid-19 on January 27th after only four confirmed cases had been diagnosed in that country. They understood the danger. One week later they had an approved test ready to go, and would soon lead the world in testing. Why did German and South Korea (and several other countries) spring into action as fast as they did? They had no more information than we had, but they were keenly fixated on the public health problem rather than the political optics. They understood the danger at the very highest levels of government. We, apparently, didn’t.
So, as it turns out, January 2020 was the decisive month in the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic. That was the month when the world knew enough to act decisively. Some nations did. Some nations didn’t. Speed, once the danger is apparent, is critical. In Germany and South Korea and many other nations, there was no squabbling among officials deciding whether public health imperatives or political imperatives would determine the respective nations’ messaging to their people.
In time, the history of the US government’s response to Covid-19 will be clear. January and February will be the months that will get the most scrutiny. That’s when a clear, high-level understanding of what we potentially faced was most essential. That’s also when clearly articulated and well-coordinated leadership was critical. That’s why we have a well-funded CDC that has been the envy of the world. That’s when something went very wrong at the very time we needed decisive leadership to go very right.