A year has passed since the first reports of the novel coronavirus and its potentially devastating health effects surfaced from China.

A team of reporters from Reuters has taken a detailed look at the early responses by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and concluded the initial phase was marred “by the agency’s career scientists and frontline staff.”

Critics have widely asserted that the CDC fumbled key decisions during the coronavirus scourge because then-President Donald Trump and his administration meddled in the agency’s operations and muzzled internal experts. The matter is now the subject of a congressional inquiry. Yet Reuters has found new evidence that the CDC’s response to the pandemic also was marred by actions – or inaction – by the agency’s career scientists and frontline staff.

At a crucial moment in the pandemic when Americans were quarantined after possible exposure to the virus abroad, the agency declined or resisted potentially valuable opportunities to study whether the disease could be spread by those without symptoms, according to previously undisclosed internal emails, other documents and interviews with key players.

Soon after balking at testing the returnees from Wuhan, the agency delayed testing asymptomatic passengers among 318 evacuees from the Diamond Princess, a contaminated cruise ship in Japan. In addition, the agency failed at that time to make effective use of outside experts and appeared at times unprepared for the crisis on the ground, lacking adequate personal protective gear and ignoring established protocols, Reuters found.

It is important to note that it is exceedingly difficult to prevent the transmission of airborne viruses, especially those that are structured (naturally or otherwise) to be especially adapted to impact human respiratory systems. After all, while there are actions we can take to reduce our chances of catching colds (also coronaviruses) or flus, we all eventually get them. So, I strongly doubt that any response is ever going to be “perfect.”

Furthermore, Reuters’ team focuses on the possibility of asymptomatic transmissions being a significant contributor. That assumption is still questionable. For example, one study published in Nature Communications shows that of the nearly 10 million cases of infection in Wuhan, China, only “300 asymptomatic cases” were found.” Contact tracing was then carried out and of those 300, no cases of COVID-19 were detected.

Additionally, last June, Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) technical lead for COVID-19, said  that asymptomatic transmission appears to be “very rare.”

The WHO’s guidance also notes that some studies that have found evidence for asymptomatic transmission had small sample sizes, which would make their findings less statistically relevant. In addition, the WHO said, some of these studies did not rule out alternative explanations for how some patients may have contracted the virus, like touching a contaminated surface.

However, it is interesting that we seem to be seeing a shift from blaming an administration for failed policy to blaming an agency.

And while the subject of asymptomatic transmission can be debated, the Reuters report does provide troubling details on the experience, skill, and decision-making-process of CDC responders to incipient stages of the global outbreak. For example, CDC scientists botched the creation of test kits and took weeks trying to fix it, making widespread testing. Furthermore, members of CDC response team sent to Japan to address the outbreak on a cruise shop had no experience in infection control.

According to [Dr. Michael Callahan, a veteran infectious disease specialist from Massachusetts General Hospital], he had to turn back two CDC staffers seeking to board the Diamond Princess in Japan because they had no current experience in emergency medicine and infection control.

Callahan said the problem was not isolated to the CDC’s coronavirus response. In his regular interactions in the field with CDC staff in recent years, he said, he has seen “a progressive degradation of clinical expertise and incident management,” particularly during Ebola outbreaks in Africa.

The CDC needs “people that can actually do public health when bad stuff happens,” Callahan said.

The CDC “experts” also made questionable decisions regarding cruise ship passengers being transferred to Nebraska Medical Center to Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas.

…[T]he CDC official moved the two people who had developed symptoms mid-flight back with the group of healthy passengers, and the CDC’s handling of the flight violated disaster medicine protocols, according to the report. The CDC official is not named in the report.

Similar problems occurred when Callahan arrived with another group of 167 Diamond Princess passengers at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California and a CDC officer boarded the plane, the report said.

The Reuters report certainly aligns with our reports questioning the assertions of other “experts” who have admitted to lying directly to the public. Yet I think the biggest takeaway is that our media will be keen to shift any blame for any problem that arises during the next four years away from the new administration. This report may represent the start of that transition.

 

 
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