Obama’s Ebola Czar on What Strong Federal Response Looks Like

Why isn’t this being done now?

President Trump has had a really hostile relationship with science and expertise, on not just this issue but many issues. He likes to go with his own gut, as he famously says. We’ve caught an issue where his own gut is not up to the challenge and where he should be listening more to the scientists and the experts than his hunches or his son-in-law. The second part of it is he has seemed reluctant to ruffle the feathers you need to ruffle to put the full weight of the federal government behind the response.

You mentioned working with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is a key part of the federal response. Do you have an insight of what he’s going through and how he is trying to thread the needle?

Tony Fauci is a national treasure. Tony can be most effective by being a part of this administration. He understands that to help us all, he has to work with Donald Trump. But he has done it without compromising his well-deserved reputation for telling the truth. In my Ebola team, when public anxiety rose, we had an abbreviation in the office: PTFOTV, which stood for ‘Put Tony Fauci on TV.’ That was our main response on the communications side. That would be my advice to the Trump administration as well: PTFOTV.

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The Trump administration has blamed the Obama administration for the slow response to the pandemic, charging that it had a dysfunctional testing system. Was the testing system broken when Trump took office?

No. Among the many ridiculous things they say, this is the most ridiculous. As any expert will tell you, you can’t build a test for coronavirus until you have a coronavirus. We didn’t have this novel coronavirus until late 2019.

I think he was saying that the infrastructure of testing itself was broken.

I don’t even begin to understand what that means. We certainly tested everyone who we suspected of having Ebola. We got to the place where we were able to produce and process those tests in a matter of hours, to every single person who we suspected of having Ebola. The problem wasn’t that the infrastructure was broken, the problem here is that the Trump administration sat on their rear ends. When scientists sequenced the coronavirus in January, why didn’t we mass produce tests right away? Every other country got ahead of us on testing.

What about the shortages? The LA Times reported that in 2009, the Obama administration was warned that after H1N1 the stockpile of masks should be replenished. Is that something that the Obama administration missed? Did they leave us with a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment?

We proposed in our budget several years in the Obama administration to increase funding for the stockpile to buy more goods. The Republican House rejected it each time we proposed it. The President’s own Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, proposed that the Trump administration increase the stockpile and Trump’s own Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rejected the request. They have had three years to replenish the stockpile, they didn’t do it. The president still has not invoked the Defense Production Act to stimulate production of masks, gowns, face masks, all the things that our doctors and nurses need.

It’s well-documented that Trump and National Security Council head John Bolton ended the pandemic response team in the National Security Council. What were the things that that office would have done if it were operating during this current crisis?

At the end of the Ebola response in 2015, after we beat the epidemic, President Obama asked me for my recommendations. One was to create a permanent unit inside the National Security Council to prepare us for future pandemics. He set up that office in 2015. When Trump came in, in 2017, he kept the office in place and put a Bush appointee, a guy named Admiral Timothy Ziemer, who had been a veteran of fighting AIDS in Africa in charge of the office. In 2018, though, when John Bolton took over as head of the NSC, they abolished the office because they thought fighting epidemics and pandemics was a health care thing, not a security thing.

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