- Laurie Garretta former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. She is the author of several books, including Ebola: Story of an Outbreak, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance and Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, the United States has declared a public health emergency and is barring foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China from entering the country. So far, there are 11 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. The virus has claimed at least 361 lives in China. A 44-year-old man in the Philippines became the first casualty of the disease outside of China Saturday, and over the weekend the number of confirmed cases worldwide rose to at least 17,205 across more than two dozen countries, with most of those cases occurring in China. U.S. citizens who have visited Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, will be quarantined when re-entering the country. Questions are being raised about the handling of the disease by Chinese authorities, who critics say delayed their response and downplayed the severity of the problem. The local Red Cross in Hubei has also come under fire for failing to distribute essential medical supplies to the hospitals which need it most. Meanwhile, Chinese and Asian communities in countries including France and Canada say they have been the target of increased racism because of the outbreak. We speak to Laurie Garrett, former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show looking at the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, which has already claimed the lives of at least 361 people in China. It’s believed 17,000 people are now infected. As the virus continues to spread, the United States has declared a public health emergency and is barring foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China from entering the U.S. So far, there are 11 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. A 44-year-old man in the Philippines became the first fatality of the disease outside China Saturday, and over the weekend the number of confirmed cases worldwide continued to grow in more than two dozen countries. Most of these cases are in China. U.S. citizens who have visited Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, will be quarantined when re-entering the country.
Questions are being raised about the handling of the disease by Chinese authorities, who critics say delayed their response and downplayed the severity of the problem. The local Red Cross in Hubei has also come under fire for failing to distribute essential medical supplies to hospitals which need it most.
Meanwhile, Chinese and Asian communities in countries including France and Canada have become the target of increased racism, they say, because of the outbreak.
For more, we’re joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett, author of several books, including Ebola: Story of an Outbreak and The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance and Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. Her latest piece for Foreign Policy is headlined “Trump Has Sabotaged America’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Laurie. It’s great to have you with us. Explain what you found.
LAURIE GARRETT: Well, the Trump administration, from the moment it came in, wanted to disband programs that were signature programs of the Obama administration. One of them had to do with global health security in response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which, as you know, was a very deadly outcome and involved three countries. The United States played a big role, including having our military on site in Liberia in support. And the Trump administration pretty much disbanded the entire program, got rid of the National Security Council’s special pandemic response unit, got rid of the equivalent in the Department of Homeland Security, cut the budget of the Centers for Disease Control, and, you know, we can go down a huge list. Even a program that is specifically aiming at protecting you and me, citizens inside the country, by beefing up the hospital capacities and training of local healthcare workers and public health leaders is running out of money and will be officially shut down in May, unless something happens. And Congress has refused to even look at it. McConnell has never allowed it to even come up for a vote. So, we’re in a situation now where we’re flying on fumes, with people in charge who have never really been in the middle of epidemics, haven’t listened to those who really understand how to stop an epidemic.
And then, on top of it all, Pompeo, the secretary of state, seems to be — to have carte blanche to do whatever he wants. He’s not consulting other agencies before acting. And so he has basically banned, not only a travel ban on people coming from China to the United States, but he’s conflated our immigration policy with a travel issue, so that if you’re a Chinese citizen now, you can’t come to the United States. Most Americans don’t realize they’ve essentially used this epidemic to stop all travel and movement. And one of the outcomes of that, which is just incredibly nuts, is that almost all of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used in the formulation of medicines in America — frankly, for the whole world — come from China. And so, we will soon run out of drugs for everything. Has nothing to do with the epidemic. We’re going to run out of diabetes drugs and heart disease drugs and cancer drugs and all of that, many of which were already in short supply, because the ingredients our pharmaceutical industry uses all come from China.
AMY GOODMAN: And what’s going to happen to all of those drugs being made in China?
LAURIE GARRETT: Who knows? There’s no answer. There’s no solution. And now the tension between the United States and China has gotten so high that the Foreign Ministry issued statements today declaring that America is responsible for a global xenophobic attack against China, in no uncertain terms. It’s very clear that inside China it’s already beginning to play as “America is our enemy. America is making it worse for us.”
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of, on Thursday, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross appearing to welcome the coronavirus as a boost to the U.S. job market, saying in a Fox News interview that it would, quote, “accelerate the return of jobs to North America”?
LAURIE GARRETT: Well, that was an ill-advised comment, to say the least. And, look, we’re going to have other comments of a similar tone. We, right now here in New York City, have three suspected cases of this virus. All involve individuals who had recently been in China. All over the United States, we’re seeing cases of individuals that have been in China, and many of them are ethnic Chinese. So you may feed a kind of racial response, a kind of xenophobia, that is always in America just, you know, this close to the surface. Give it a little scratch, and, boom, out comes the racism. So, I think we’re in very dangerous territory right now, where we need not only infrastructure guidance, but moral guidance, in how to respond to a frightening epidemic.
AMY GOODMAN: Apparently, as part of the restrictions now in the U.S., some flights are being rerouted to specific airports where passengers receive advanced health screenings.
LAURIE GARRETT: Yes. You know, this is a playbook that follows what happened in 2009 with the H1N1 swine flu when it went global. Everybody goes to shutting down their airports, as if that matters, as if that works. You know, one of the things that’s really a problem with this virus, that wasn’t with SARS, even though they’re very, very close genetically — it’s a crucial biological difference —
AMY GOODMAN: The SARS virus from? What year was that?
LAURIE GARRETT: 2003. And I was in the middle of that epidemic in China throughout, so I know what I’m speaking of. And in that particular epidemic, we were fortunate that people were really only contagious when they had a high fever. And so, this thing you see all over China now of these fever guns pointing at people’s heads to see do you have a fever, and, if you do, sending you off to quarantine, has become the method used all over the world. So now we set up these fever portals that you walk through at airports. And —
AMY GOODMAN: That detect your temperature?
LAURIE GARRETT: Detect your temperature. And all over the world now people have erected them in their airports. But the problem is, we now know this virus can spread before you have any symptoms at all. And so the person carrying the virus might not have a fever. So we’re setting up a whole false sense of defense.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back, Laurie. Explain what is happening in China right now. In fact, explain what the coronavirus is and then what we are seeing. What? Over 360 deaths, 17,000 people, overwhelmingly it’s China that’s being hit the hardest.
LAURIE GARRETT: Yes. A coronavirus is called corona because it has spikes around the outside, which, when you look at it through a microscope, kind of looks like a crown. Corona, crown. But that has nothing to do with its biology, just what it looks like. It’s a class of viruses that includes most of your common colds. So, actually, everybody’s quite familiar with coronaviruses; they just don’t know it.
And all the dangerous coronaviruses that we have seen in recent years, the big ones being the current one, SARS and MERS, the Middle East respiratory syndrome, which is still circulating in Saudi Arabia, all of them are originally bat viruses. Now, not vampire bats, but fruit bats. And because of pressures we’re putting on bat habitats, particularly rainforests, bats are more and more going into areas where there’s human occupation, even though they’re very shy creatures. Somewhere in the chain of wildlife hunting and transport and then sale of live animals in wet markets in China, bats come in contact with some other intermediary species. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it’s camels. In the case of SARS, it was the civet, which is eaten in winter, ironically, to ward off respiratory infections, and was the carrier that transmitted to humans. And in the case of this disease, we don’t yet know what species in the wet market was the intermediary animal, which is very scary because it means that species, still in sale and circulation elsewhere in Asia, may be spreading the virus to human beings.
Meanwhile, once it’s jumped to human beings, what we’re looking at is a virus that causes really severe pneumonia. That’s your top dangerous symptom. And we don’t have any treatment for it except to put you on oxygen intensive care treatment to help you fight your own pneumonia. Since it’s a viral pneumonia, of course, antibiotics cannot be used, should not used.
AMY GOODMAN: What about a vaccine?
LAURIE GARRETT: There is no vaccine. We don’t have a vaccine for any of the coronaviruses. And there is a lot of evidence that as people are infected for a while, they make antibodies against the virus. They do manage to eventually clear it in most cases, but the antibodies are not lasting, so they don’t remain immune over time, which bodes ill for developing an effective vaccine.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what’s happening with people? How did China deal with it? How are they dealing with it? What’s happening in Wuhan?
LAURIE GARRETT: The way China has responded is to draw on its 2003 SARS playbook, because — and the similarities are just enormous from what I saw with SARS, because SARS started in November 2002, wasn’t really detected until cases fled across the border into Hong Kong, and suddenly Hong Kong’s hospitals were being filled with these mysterious cases. But China was denying that it was a mainland China problem, denying that it had gone beyond the original outbreak zone down in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and covered up the existence of the virus in Beijing, where it was being handled secretly by the military and cases were being put in military hospitals. When they finally had to admit, “Yes, we have a problem,” people fled. And I was there as an eyewitness. They fled by the tens of thousands from Beijing, by every means possible. And overnight, it was an all-nation epidemic. So the only way to control it was to say everybody gets a fever check at every highway point, every entry to every public building —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds for this Part 1.
LAURIE GARRETT: — and so on. And they’re now just replicating the same thing, building instant hospitals, barricades, blocking off cities, blocking off transport.
AMY GOODMAN: In Part 2, and we’ll post it at democracynow.org, what can people do about it. Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.