Coronavirus missteps
April 15, 2020

There was compelling evidence by late December that the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, was spreading from person to person, but Chinese officials didn't take the threat of a significant outbreak seriously until the coronavirus was detected in Thailand on Jan. 13, The Associated Press reports, citing internal documents and interviews with Chinese officials. Top officials in Beijing started preparing for a pandemic on Jan. 14, but secretly, keeping the public in the dark as the virus spread for six days. President Xi Jinping issued a televised warning on Jan. 20, at which point more than 3,000 people had been infected.

Chinese officials spent the six days distributing test kits to trace the virus nationwide, ordering wider screening of patients, preparing hospitals for an infectious virus, and easing the stringent rules for confirming coronavirus infections, AP reports. During that week, Wuhan "hosted a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people" and "millions began traveling through for Lunar New Year celebrations."

"If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient," Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told AP. "We might have avoided the collapse of Wuhan's medical system," and lives would have been saved. Researchers later estimated that if the public had been warned a week earlier and told to wear masks, forego travel, and social-distance, cases could have been cut by up to two-thirds.

China denies that it hid the outbreak early on, and some outside experts argue that Beijing's actions were defensible given its private actions and the risk of provoking unnecessary hysteria. "But the early story of the pandemic in China shows missed opportunities at every step," AP reports. "Under Xi, China's most authoritarian leader in decades, increasing political repression has made officials more hesitant to report cases without a clear green light from the top." Read more at The Associated Press. Peter Weber

March 19, 2020

If South Korea has become a model of how early, aggressive testing can help contain the COVID-19 coronavirus, the U.S. is at risk of become one of the cautionary tales. Nearly two months after the first COVID-19 case was discovered in the U.S., America's "testing capacity remains extraordinarily limited compared to where we should be," Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina tells NPR.

"Some White House aides learned of complaints about the availability of testing from the media, not the public-health officials in their own government," The Wall Street Journal reports, citing an administration official familiar with the matter. "Only in the first week of March did discussions in a White House coronavirus task force about the testing shortfall take on a sense of urgency."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started shipping test kits to state and local government labs in early February, with narrow criteria for who could get tested. When those tests proved to be flawed, the CDC recalled then in mid-February.

By Feb. 24, state and local labs were begging the Food and Drug Administration to loosen rules preventing non-CDC labs from using their own tests. On Feb. 26, the CDC told state and local officials via email that its "testing capacity is more than adequate to meet current testing demands," the Journal reports. On Feb. 29, the FDA, under pressure, waived some of the rules to allow broader testing by state, academic, and private labs. Quickly, a run on crucial test kit ingredients depleted supplies.

"Health-care officials say the current state of testing reflects both technical and planning failures, as well as a broader failure of imagination," the Journal says. "Leaders including President Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar early in the outbreak appeared unable or unwilling to envision a crisis of the scale that has now emerged, and no one stepped up to effectively coordinate among federal agencies or the private-sector labs, medical providers, and manufacturers needed for a large-scale testing push, they say." Read more at The Wall Street Journal. Peter Weber

March 13, 2020

The U.S. government's response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has been "much, much worse than almost any other country that's been affected," Ashish Jha, who runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, told NPR on Thursday. "I still don't understand why we don't have extensive testing. Vietnam! Vietnam has tested more people than America has." Without testing, he added, "you have no idea how extensive the infection is," and "we have to shut schools, events, and everything down, because that's the only tool available to us until we get testing back up. It's been stunning to me how bad the federal response has been."

There are a lot of reasons why the U.S. lags other countries in testing for the new coronavirus — defective early tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the decision not to adopt an effective German test adopted by the World Health Organization — but Politico's Dan Diamond told Fresh Air's Terry Gross on Thursday that politics also seems to have played a role, along with mismanagement and infighting between, for example, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Seema Verma, the Medicare chief.

In January, Azar "did push past resistance from the president's political aides to warn the president the new coronavirus could be a major problem," Diamond said, but he "has not always given the president the worst-case scenario of what could happen. My understanding is [Trump] did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, and that's partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear — the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential re-election this fall."

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta discussed America's "sad" testing failure, the "provincial" decision not to use the WHO test, and other missteps and positive moves with Stephen Colbert on Thursday's Late Show. You can watch that below. Peter Weber

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