The President and the Plague - 2020-04-12
In the coming months, Trump would try to blame the WHO for failing to alert other nations early enough to the outbreak. But that's just scapegoating. To anyone schooled in the science of pandemics, when the Chinese disclosed that they had identified a novel coronavirus on January 7th, it was cause for alarm. And certainly, by then, it was no secret to the Trump administration. Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, said that his agency learned of the coronavirus on January 3rd, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield's conversations with Chinese colleagues. Azar told CNN that he and Redfield officially offered to send a CDC team into China on January 6th but did not receive permission for them to enter the country.
If the Trump administration had a better working relationship with the Chinese, that might not have been a problem. But the administration had slashed U.S. public-health staff working inside China from 47 people in 2017 to 14 people by 2019. In July 2019, the administration even defunded the position of an epidemiologist who had been embedded inside China's own disease-control agency.
Still, according to former government officials, U.S. intelligence agencies would have been alerted in real time about the outbreak in China. "The U.S. intelligence community would have been well positioned to not only detect the emergence of a novel virus like this," says Ben Rhodes, "but also to understand the extent to which the Chinese might have been suppressing some information about it in those early days." John Kerry agrees: "I'm told [intelligence] had all this in late December, early January."
Whatever Trump officials knew, they took no significant action in the early days of the outbreak. On January 6th, the CDC issued a level-one travel alert to Wuhan, advising travelers to avoid sick people and animal markets. On January 17th, the CDC and Department of Homeland Security announced that travelers from Wuhan to the U.S. would undergo entry screening for symptoms associated with COVID-19 at San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles airports. According to The Washington Post, Azar had his first discussion about the virus with President Trump on January 18th, a full week after the Chinese had disclosed the genetic structure of the virus. According to the Post, "the president interjected to ask about vaping and when flavored vaping products would be back on the market."