EXCLUSIVE-U.S. axed CDC expert job in China months before virus outbreak
WASHINGTON, March 22 (Reuters) - Several months before the coronavirus pandemic began, the Trump administration eliminated a key American public health position in Beijing intended to help detect disease outbreaks in China, Reuters has learned.
The American disease expert, a medical epidemiologist embedded in China's disease control agency, left her post in July, according to four sources with knowledge of the issue. The first cases of the new coronavirus may have emerged as early as November, and as cases exploded, the Trump administration in February chastised China for censoring information about the outbreak and keeping U.S. experts from entering the country to help.
“It was heartbreaking to watch,” said Bao-Ping Zhu, a Chinese American who served in that role, which was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2007 and 2011. “If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster.”
Zhu and the other sources said the American expert, Dr. Linda Quick, was a trainer of Chinese field epidemiologists who were deployed to the epicenter of outbreaks to help track, investigate and contain diseases.
As an American CDC employee, they said, Quick was in an ideal position to be the eyes and ears on the ground for the United States and other countries on the coronavirus outbreak, and might have alerted them to the growing threat weeks earlier.
No other foreign disease experts were embedded to lead the program after Quick left in July, according to the sources. Zhu said an embedded expert can often get word of outbreaks early, after forming close relationships with Chinese counterparts.
Zhu and the other sources said Quick could have provided real-time information to U.S. and other officials around the world during the first weeks of the outbreak, when they said the Chinese government tamped down on the release of information and provided erroneous assessments.
Quick left amid a bitter U.S. trade dispute with China when she learned her federally funded post, officially known as resident adviser to the U.S. Field Epidemiology Training Program in China, would be discontinued as of September, the sources said. The U.S. CDC said it first learned of a “cluster of 27 cases of pneumonia” of unexplained origin in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31.
Since then, the outbreak of the disease known as COVID-19 has spread rapidly worldwide, killing more than 13,600 people, infecting more than 317,000. The epidemic has overwhelmed healthcare systems in some countries, including Italy, and threatens to do so in the United States and elsewhere.
During a press briefing on Sunday shortly after this story was first published, President Donald Trump dismissed the Reuters report as similar to other stories regarding the CDC that he described as "100 percent wrong," without addressing whether the role had been eliminated.
U.S. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield maintained the agency's presence in China “is actually being augmented as we speak,” without elaborating.
In a statement to Reuters before the report was published, the CDC said the elimination of the adviser position did not hinder Washington's ability to get information and “had absolutely nothing to do with CDC not learning of cases in China earlier.”
The agency said its decision not to have a resident adviser “started well before last summer and was due to China’s excellent technical capability and maturity of the program.”
The CDC said it has assigned two of its Chinese employees as “mentors” to help with the training program. The agency did not respond to questions about the mentors’ specific role or expertise.
The CDC would not make Quick, who still works for the agency, available for comment.
Asked for comment on Chinese transparency and responsiveness to the outbreak, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred Reuters to remarks by spokesman Geng Shuang on Friday. Geng said the country “has adopted the strictest, most comprehensive, and most thorough prevention and control measures in an open, transparent, and responsible manner, and informed the (World Health Organization) and relevant countries and regions of the latest situation in a timely manner.”
One disease expert told Reuters he was skeptical that the U.S. resident adviser would have been able to get earlier or better information to the Trump administration, given the Chinese government’s suppression of information.
“In the end, based on circumstances in China, it probably wouldn’t have made a big difference,” Scott McNabb, who was a CDC epidemiologist for 20 years and is now a research professor at Emory University. “The problem was how the Chinese handled it. What should have changed was the Chinese should have acknowledged it earlier and didn’t.”
ALERT FROM CHINA’S CDC
Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) said on Friday that his agency learned of the coronavirus in early January, based on Redfield’s conversations with “Chinese colleagues.”
Redfield learned that “this looks to be a novel coronavirus” from Dr. Gao **bleep**, the head of the China CDC, according to an HHS administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Dr. Redfield always talked to Dr. Gao,” the official said.
Sudden Departure Of White House Global Health Security Head Has Experts Worried
Rear Adm. Tim Ziemer, the head of global health security on the White House’s National Security Council, left the Trump administration on Tuesday. The news was announced one day after an Ebola outbreak was declared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The departure comes amid a reshuffling of the NSC under newly named national security adviser John Bolton, which includes a change in organizational structure that eliminates the office Ziemer led. Ziemer’s staff has been placed under other NSC departments.
“Admiral Ziemer’s departure is deeply alarming, especially when the administration is actively working to cut funds that addressed past pandemics like Ebola,” Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), the vice ranking member of the foreign affairs committee, told HuffPost in a statement. “Expertise like his is critical in avoiding large outbreaks.”
According to Robert Palladino, NSC spokesman, the reorganization will streamline the process, and he said Ziemer left “on the warmest of terms.”
Ziemer’s exit follows the departure last month of White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, who was another champion of investment in global health security. Bossert left the day after Bolton began as national security adviser.
Ron Klain, the former Ebola “czar” under President Barack Obama, told HuffPost the combination of their departures was a blow to global health security.
“Proposing a rescission of Ebola contingency funds on the very day that a new Ebola outbreak is announced is badly misguided; forcing out the two top officials in charge of epidemic response at the White House – Tom Bossert and Tim Ziemer – is even worse,” Klain said. “Doing it all at the same time shows a reckless disregard for the dangers we face.”
Some global health security experts also aren’t so sure about whether the reorganization will maintain global health security and biothreats ― such as potential pandemics like Ebola ― as a priority.
Beth Cameron, who previously served as the senior director for global health security and biodefense on Obama’s NSC staff and is currently the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s vice president for global biological policy and programs, called his departure “a major loss for health security, biodefense, and pandemic preparedness.”
“It is unclear in his absence who at the White House would be in charge of a pandemic,” Cameron said, calling it “a situation that should be immediately rectified.”
Tim Rieser, a staffer for the Senate Appropriations committee and senior foreign policy aide for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who has been called one of the “most powerful staffers in Congress presiding over U.S. foreign policy and U.S. foreign assistance,” echoed Cameron’s comments.
“We have no idea at this point who at the White House is in charge of global health security, at a time when infectious diseases can spread like wildfire in a matter of days threatening millions of Americans here and abroad,” Rieser said.
Loyce Pace, the president and executive director of the Global Health Council, a membership organization that lobbies for global health priorities, reiterated the need to know who is leading pandemic response.
“We really need a strong leader in place from the U.S. who will help coordinate an interagency response and can really provide that kind of assurance and contribute to the progress made in global health security,” Pace said.
The development is also troubling some global health leaders, as it points to a larger pattern within the White House not to put adequate resources behind global health preparedness, said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow for the Center for Global Development. Konyndyk previously led parts of the 2014 Ebola response for the Obama administration as the director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.
While advocates were happy to see that Congress almost doubled global health security funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the 2018 fiscal year, Trump’s stance has been to call for cuts to overall global health aid. Previous versions of the president’s budgets have called for spending reductions at the CDC, USAID and the Global Fund.
Rieser also pointed to the White House’s choice not to push for more funding in this arena, saying bipartisan support has meant Congress has appropriated “significantly larger amounts than the White House has requested to help less developed countries improve their capabilities to conduct surveillance and respond quickly to disease outbreaks.”
When asked about the proposed rescission of the Ebola funds, a spokesperson for the NSC told HuffPost that sufficient funds were available through USAID for an outbreak and that if additional funds were needed, the State Department could appropriate them through funding for other programs.
The spokesperson also stated that in such a situation, other donor countries would be expected to contribute, including by supporting the World Health Organization’s Contingency Fund for Emergencies.
Ultimately for Konyndyk, the change in structure at the NSC could be an “unraveling of some capabilities and resource streams that date back across two administrations and have pretty bipartisan support on the Hill.”
“I hope it’s not lost on anyone that it happened the exact week that we have new reports on the Ebola outbreak,” Konyndyk added.