Home/Daniel Larison/The Government Has Been Flying Blind in Its Coronavirus Response

The Government Has Been Flying Blind in Its Coronavirus Response

The federal government’s inadequate testing for coronavirus over the last two months has meant that the authorities have been oblivious to the full extent of the outbreak in the U.S.:

The coronavirus has been circulating undetected and has possibly infected scores of people over the past six weeks in Washington state, according to a genetic analysis of virus samples that has sobering implications for the entire country amid heightening anxiety about the likely spread of the disease.

The researchers conducted genetic sequencing of two virus samples. One is from a patient who traveled from China to Snohomish County in mid-January and was the first person diagnosed with the disease in the United States. The other came from a recently diagnosed patient in the same county, a high school student with no travel-related or other known exposure to the coronavirus. The two samples look almost identical genetically, said Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who announced the results of the research on Twitter late Saturday night.

“This strongly suggests that there has been cryptic transmission in Washington State for the past 6 weeks,” Bedford wrote. “I believe we’re facing an already substantial outbreak in Washington State that was not detected until now due to narrow case definition requiring direct travel to China.”

When the administration is determined to minimize the significance of the outbreak and to pretend that all is well, they are signalling to the relevant agencies that they don’t want to hear contradictory information. It then requires whistle-blowers inside those agencies to call attention to serious lapses and failures in the government’s response, and if it weren’t for these people the public would be even more in the dark about what is happening and how the government is reacting. The administration’s handling of the response has already proven itself to be quite poor, but that still doesn’t fully capture how chaotic and confused it has been:

Interviews with nearly two dozen administration officials, former White House aides, public health experts and lawmakers — many speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments and details — portray a White House scrambling to gain control of a rudderless response defined by bureaucratic infighting, confusion and misinformation.

“It’s complete chaos,” a senior administration official said. “Everyone is just trying to get a handle on what the [expletive] is going on.”

The government was ill-prepared for this outbreak and then frittered away what time they had to get ready. The Trump administration previously dismantled the part of the National Security Council concerned with organizing a response to pandemics (thank you, John Bolton). Laurie Garrett wrote about this last month:

Public health advocates have been ringing alarm bells to no avail. Klain has been warning for two years that the United States was in grave danger should a pandemic emerge. In 2017 and 2018, the philanthropist billionaire Bill Gates met repeatedly with Bolton and his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, warning that ongoing cuts to the global health disease infrastructure would render the United States vulnerable to, as he put it, the “significant probability of a large and lethal modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes.” And an independent, bipartisan panel formed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that lack of preparedness was so acute in the Trump administration that the “United States must either pay now and gain protection and security or wait for the next epidemic and pay a much greater price in human and economic costs.”

The Trump administration opted for weakening protections for public health on the off-chance that the bill wouldn’t come due while they were in office. Like so many other short-sighted things they have done over the last three years, this has blown up in their face to the country’s detriment.

ProPublica reported last week on the CDC’s mistakes that led to the lack of adequate testing:

As the highly infectious coronavirus jumped from China to country after country in January and February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lost valuable weeks that could have been used to track its possible spread in the United States because it insisted upon devising its own test.

The federal agency shunned the World Health Organization test guidelines used by other countries and set out to create a more complicated test of its own that could identify a range of similar viruses. But when it was sent to labs across the country in the first week of February, it didn’t work as expected. The CDC test correctly identified COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. But in all but a handful of state labs, it falsely flagged the presence of the other viruses in harmless samples.

As a result, until Wednesday the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration only allowed those state labs to use the test — a decision with potentially significant consequences. The lack of a reliable test prevented local officials from taking a crucial first step in coping with a possible outbreak — “surveillance testing” of hundreds of people in possible hotspots. Epidemiologists in other countries have used this sort of testing to track the spread of the disease before large numbers of people turn up at hospitals.

Jeremy Konyndyk explains how the CDC effectively blinded itself to the reality of the problem by defining it so narrowly that they missed what was happening:

The U.S. has been flying blind in response to the outbreak of this virus. Our government is lagging badly behind more effective efforts at detection and treatment in other countries, and the public will pay the price for this negligence and unpreparedness.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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