For the first time, more new cases of COVID-19 were reported outside mainland China than in it yesterday, putting the focus on other nations' preparations and responses. Unfortunately, in many cases it's not looking good, and the people in charge of the USA's response look particularly poorly suited to their roles.
At a press conference on Wednesday Donald Trump accused cable news channels of exaggerating the threat from COVID-19. He may be right on that, since reporting of the epidemic covers a wide spectrum, from gross exaggeration to drastically underrating the possible threat. However, his biggest concern appeared to be the effect such fears have on the stock market, which isn't encouraging anyone who values lives over share prices.
In an effort to lower these fears, Trump said researchers are “very close to a vaccine”. Although widespread availability is months to years away, at least he sees vaccines as a positive, given his past dalliance with anti-vaccination beliefs.
Trump announced Vice President Mike Pence would lead the nation's response to the outbreak. Although putting the VP in charge of an issue is often a way of showing it is being taken seriously, the decision raised eyebrows given Pence's contribution to causing a local HIV outbreak while he was Governor of Indiana.
If Pence's history causes concerns it is nothing to that of Ken Cuccinelli, the Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary and a member of Trump's coronavirus taskforce. Cuccinelli is the former Attorney General of Virginia, where his two main claims to fame were hounding one of the world's leading climate scientists out of the state, and attempting to ban anal sex. Cuccinelli attracted derision this week when he tweeted about his inability to access the COVID-19 dashboard, a website set up by Johns Hopkins University to assist people in visualizing the number and locations of cases of the disease, deaths, and recoveries.
Last week Senators were disbelieving when Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf claimed the death rate from COVID-19 was similar to that from the flu. While a few historic influenza outbreaks have been far more deadly, seasonal flu's mortality rate is 0.1 percent, well below the 1.5-3 percent estimated for COVID-19.
On Monday the president asked congress for $2.5 billion to fight the virus, almost half of it for vaccine development. While that sounds like a lot, Trump also sought to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control by $750 million in this year's budget, including removing all epidemiology resources. Two years ago he fired the entire pandemic response team established by President Obama and has yet to replace them.
Despite the government input, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar refused congressional requests for assurance the vaccine would be available at affordable prices. Instead, Azar indicated pharmaceutical companies would be free to take the public funding and charge whatever price maximizes their profits.
Yesterday, February 26, the day new cases reported outside of China overtook those inside, 982 new cases were confirmed globally. Although this is a dramatic fall from three weeks ago, when 3-4,000 cases were being reported each day, the fact the new reports were scattered so widely across the globe makes containing the virus much harder than when it was more concentrated.
The United States still has the greatest concentration of epidemiological expertise in the world, and laboratories for fighting new diseases most nations envy. A lot of lives depend on whether those resources are used to their full potential.