“CAME OUT of nowhere,” President Trump said March 6 of the coronavirus pandemic. “I just think this is something . . . that you can never really think is going to happen.” A few weeks later, he added, “I would view it as something that just surprised the whole world.” Mr. Trump also said, “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion.”
Of course, no one can pinpoint the exact moment that lightning will strike. But a global pandemic? Experts have predicted it, warned about the preparedness gaps and urged action. Again and again and again.
Just look at 2019. In January, the U.S. intelligence community issued its annual global threat assessment. It declared, “We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support. . . . The growing proximity of humans and animals has increased the risk of disease transmission. The number of outbreaks has increased in part because pathogens originally found in animals have spread to human populations.”
In September, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security issued a report titled “Preparedness for a High-Impact Respiratory Pathogen Pandemic.” The report found that if such a pathogen emerged, “it would likely have significant public health, economic, social, and political consequences. . . . The combined possibilities of short incubation periods and asymptomatic spread can result in very small windows for interrupting transmission, making such an outbreak difficult to contain.” The report pointed to “large national and international readiness gaps.”
In October, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, working with the Johns Hopkins center and the Economist Intelligence Unit, published its latest Global Health Security Index, examining open-source information about the state of health security across 195 nations, and scoring them. The report warned, “No country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics, and every country has important gaps to address.” The report found that “Fewer than 5 percent of countries scored in the highest tier for their ability to rapidly respond to and mitigate the spread of an epidemic.”
In November, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a study by its Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security. It warned, “The American people are far from safe. To the contrary, the United States remains woefully ill-prepared to respond to global health security threats. This kind of vulnerability should not be acceptable to anyone. At the extreme, it is a matter of life and death. . . . Outbreaks proliferate that can spread swiftly across the globe and become pandemics, disrupting supply chains, trade, transport, and ultimately entire societies and economies.” The report recommended: “Restore health security leadership at the White House National Security Council.”
Came out of nowhere? Not even close. The question that must be addressed in future postmortems is why all this expertise and warning was ignored.