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WANTED: Leader of the Free World

What the coronavirus timeline tells us about American leadership

· Leadership

The leaders of China and the U.S. share accountability in equal parts for endangering the world. Instead of heeding the warnings from scientists and epidemiologists, public health experts and intelligence agencies, both meted out continuous mixed messages and misinformation while denying or downplaying reality until it slapped them in the face and they had no choice but to acknowledge it and react to protect their nations. But the United States carries the brunt of responsibility, to paraphrase the title of an article in The Hill, for leaving the position of “leader of the free world” vacant at a time when the world most needs effective stewardship.

Who dunnit?

Who unleashed the novel coronavirus on the world? No one. The virus was not man-made. It is actually the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans. Comparison of the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains results in firm determination that the COVID-19 originated through natural processes, according to findings published on March 17, 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine. The novel coronavirus originated via natural selection in an animal host before zootonic transfer (to humans).

Who is accountable for the massive and ongoing spread of the virus throughout the world? Everyone. But special thanks goes to the leaders of China, the U.S., Europe, and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as those of Brazil and Iran. They all, some more than others, were slow to react. They all wasted precious time minimizing the outbreak. Government leaders first reacted by politicizing the virus. They were then forced to acknowledge what could no longer be denied, and took on war-time demeanors to “attack” a silent and invisible “enemy” who knows no borders, nationality or race. The results have been and continue to be deadly.

What’s the skinny? Even if COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, it is a cop-out for American leadership to blithely push the racist and divisive phrases “China virus” and “Wuhan virus” and accuse Chinese authorities of unleashing a malicious plague on the world by turning a blind eye. It is doubly irresponsible and dangerous to play the blame game.

What does the timeline tell us?

What the timeline below reveals is NOT an active attempt to, in the words of House Foreign Affairs Lead Republican Michael McCaul (TX), “hide the disease from its own people and from the world”. It reveals how world leaders who initially denied the danger of an infectious virus have endangered everyone.

January 29, 2019: Dan Coats Director of National Intelligence, delivers before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence an opening statement for the record in regards to the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community”, stating: "The United States will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or :arge-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." Coats stepped down last year after he was reported to have angered the presidentwith unwelcome intelligence assessments. This was the third time in as many years that the nation’s intelligence experts said that a new strain of influenza could lead to a pandemic, and that the U.S. and the world were unprepared.

November 17, 2019: According to government data seen by the South China Morning Post, “The first case of someone in China suffering from Covid-19 can be traced back to a 55-year old man who might have contracted the disease on November 17, but was not recognized at the time. Chinese doctors only realized they were dealing with a new disease in late December.

December 1, 2019: The first known patient started experiencing symptoms. He had not been to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market of Wuhan. No epidemiological link could be found between this case and later cases.

18–29 December: Bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BAL) that will eventually be used for viral genome sequencing is collected from hospital patients between the 18th and 29th of December. Members of The Wuhan Institute of Virology alongside others reported and published a report of seven cases of people with severe pneumonia who were admitted to the intensive care unit of Wuhan Jin Yin-Tan Hospital at the beginning of the outbreak Their samples were sent to the laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for the diagnosis of the causative pathogen. Patient ICU-01 was not proven to be linked in to the Wuhan Seafood Market however, the remaining six were either sellers or deliverymen at the market.

December 30, 2019: In the afternoon, an "urgent notice on the treatment of pneumonia of unknown cause" was issued by the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee on its Weibo social media account, reporting to WHO that 27 people, most stallholders from the Huanan seafood Wholesale Market, had been diagnosed with pneumonia of unknown cause; seven were in critical condition. It Wuhan Municipal Health Commission also made a public announcement regarding the situation. A genetic sequencing report of the pathogen of a patient indicated inaccurately the discovery of Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS coronavirus) in the test result. Multiple doctors in Wuhan shared inaccurate genetic sequencing about the pathogen, identifying it as SARS, including Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, who erroneously posted that "There had been 7 confirmed cases of SARS". The virus that causes SARS and COVID19 are related to each other genetically but the diseases they cause are different. Health authorities warned him about spreading misleading information. Li contracted this coronavirus from a patient he treated, was hospitalized on 12 January 2020 and died on 7 February 2020.

December 31, 2019: Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of pneumonia cases with an unknown etiology (unknown cause) detected in Wuhan.

January 1, 2020: the concerned market in Wuhan was closed for environmental sanitation and disinfection.

January 3, 2020: Chinese scientists at the National Institute of Viral Disease Control and Prevention (IVDC) determined the genetic sequence of the novel β-genus coronaviruses (naming it '2019-nCoV') from specimens collected from patients in Wuhan, China, and three distinct strains were established. The United States HHS Secretary Alex Azar was alerted to the initial reports of the virus by CDC director Robert Redfield, who had had discussions with Chinese doctors about the virus.

January 5, 2020: WHO issued a Press Release​ indicating that “public health measures and surveillance of influenza and severe acute respiratory infections still apply”. But it did not “recommend any specific measures for travelers. In case of symptoms suggestive of respiratory illness either during or after travel, travelers are encouraged to seek medical attention and share travel history with their healthcare provider.” WHO also advised “against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China based on the current information available on this event”.

January 6, 2020: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns Americans to take precautions if traveling to China.

January 7, 2020: The world continued to wait for China to disclose more information about what had triggered an unexplained pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, China's tenth-largest city. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, Hubei province, China. The CDC’s Emergency Operations Center activated a COVID-19 Incident Management System​, used to direct operations, deliver resources and share information.

January 8, 2020: Scientists in China announced the discovery of a new coronavirus. The CDC issues an alert about the coronavirus, saying it is “closely monitoring” the disease and that there are “no known U.S. cases.”

January 9, 2020: The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control posted its first risk assessment. The WHO also reported that Chinese authorities had acted swiftly, identifying the novel coronavirus within weeks of the onset of the outbreak, with the total number of positively tested people being 41.

January 8-13: first cases identified in Hong Kong and Thailand.

January 14: Maria Van Kerkhove, acting head of WHO's emerging diseases unit said that there had been limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, mainly small clusters in families, adding that "it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission.

January 16-20: first cases in China outside Wuhan are reported. First cases reported in Japan and South Korea.

January 17, 2020: The CDC holds its first COVID-19 telebriefing. Officials say that the agency would start screening passengers on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan. However, they said that they are not aware of measures regarding exit screening in Wuhan.

January 18, 2020: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was finally able to discuss the virus with Trump, but the President interrupted him to ask when sales of flavored vaping products would resume, senior administration officials told the paper.

January 20, 2020: Chinese authorities announced that the virus was human-to-human transmissible. Chinese epidemiologists with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) published an article stating that the first cluster of patients with "pneumonia of an unknown cause" occurred beginning on 21 December 2019. The National Institute of Health in the U.S. announces that it is working on a vaccine against the coronavirus. 

January 21, 2020: WHO situation report 1. First reported case in the U.S., in Seattle, Washington State.

January 22, 2020: WHO situation report 2, with new data showing indications of the current rapid spread of the disease and an increase in the rate of transmission. While at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Donald Trump says that the U.S. has a plan and that he thinks it’s “going to be handled very well.” He also said that he thinks China is in “very good shape and tells the public that he isn’t worried. “Not at all,” he said. “We have it totally under control.”

January 23, 2020: Quarantine of the greater Wuhan goes into effect. At an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization, the WHO says that the Wuhan coronavirus does not yet constitute a public health emergency of international concern.

January 27, 2020: Aides met with then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in an effort to convince higher level officials to monitor the virus. White House Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan asserted that if the White House did not seriously address the virus, it would become an issue likely to be front and center for months. Mulvaney subsequently held regular meetings, though officials said Trump did not take the virus seriously because he did not think it had circulated extensively in the United States. He opposed characterizing the virus as a serious threat.

January 29, 2020: The White House announces the formation of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force to lead the U.S. government response, help monitor and contain the spread of the virus, and ensure Americans have accurate and up-to-date health and travel information.

January 30, 2020: The United States reports its first confirmed case of person-to-person transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus. On the same day, the WHO determines that the outbreak constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

January 31, 2020 Almost one month after CDC director Robert Redfield had discussions with Chinese doctors about the virus, the Donald Trump administration announces it will deny entry to foreign nationals who have traveled in China in the last 14 days. This does not apply to lawful U.S. residents and family members/ spouses of U.S. residents or citizens. HHS Alex Azar, at the head of the Task Force, declares a U.S. public health emergency for COVID-19 retroactive to Jan. 27.

Throughout January-February: a surge of warnings from U.S. intelligence agencies were sounding the alarm to the serious threat of the coronavirus disseminated to members of Congress and their staffs as well as to officials in the Trump administration.

February 7, 2020: Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, writes in a Fox News op-ed that the U.S. is "better prepared than ever before" to face public health threats such as COVID-19.

February 12, 2020: originally scheduled hearing date for the Director of National Intelligence's office to deliver the threat assessment to Congress. The 2020 edition contains warnings similar to those in the 2019 installment. The 2020 hearing was delayed, by all accounts because administration officials were afraid that Donald Trump would throw another tantrum if he didn't like their testimony.

February 13, 2020: Senator Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks, breaching his duties as a United States Senator by selling stock, based on material nonpublic information.

February 24, 2020: President Trump tweets: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”.

March 5, 2020: President Trump tweets: “With approximately 100,000 CoronaVirus cases worldwide, and 3,280 deaths, the United States, because of quick action on closing our borders, has, as of now, only 129 cases (40 Americans brought in) and 11 deaths. We are working very hard to keep these numbers as low as possible!”

March 7, 2020: The President signs the $8.3 billion funding bill to combat Coronavirus and defend the health and safety of the American people.

March 9, 2020: Tom Bossert, Trump’s former pandemic adviser, publishes an op-ed in The Washington Post advocating for social distancing and school closures to slow the spread of the disease. The President tweets: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

March 11, 2020: The State Department issues a Global Level 3 Health Advisory calling on U.S. citizens to reconsider traveling abroad. The WHO announces that COVID-19 can now be characterized as a pandemic. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, the White House ordered federal health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified. Sources told the news outlet that “dozens of classified discussions” about the coronavirus have taken place since mid-January and that “some very critical people who did not have security clearances” had been left out.

March 12, 2020: At a House hearing, about coronavirus test kits, Fauci admits the U.S. is not where it needs to be in terms of testing capabilities. When asked about inability to test potential coronavirus patients, Trump said there were a “million tests out now” and that there will be 4 million in the following days. “If you go to the right agency, if you go to the right area, you get the test. 

March 13, 2020: President declares a national emergency. After an alarming shortfall of basic medical supplies, like masks, hospital beds and -ventilators—necessary to handle an expected surge of patients requiring -hospitalization—, a tussle with governors begging the White House to release federal funds to aid in preparation efforts, and a botched testing process, Trump says:

“No, I don’t take -responsibility at all.”

March 22, 2020: Coronavirus cases around the world surpass 350,000 infected people. In a barrage of tweets, Trump attacked his political enemies and the media, spread conspiracy theories, promoted a dubious article that suggested a miracle cure was at hand, and suggested that future guidelines from the White House will call for isolating high-risk groups only.

March 23, 2020: President Trump indicates he wants to curtail the strict social distancing guidelines his administration put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus and start getting people back to normal by Easter to help the economy.

March 24, 2020: President Trump seeks South Korea’s help for medical equipment, with a special request for testing kits to be sent.

March 26, 2020: The U.S. leads the world in confirmed coronavirus cases.

March 31, 2020: President Trump reissued nationwide coronavirus guidelines and, at a White House press conference, warned of a painful two weeks ahead, predicting that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans will die from the novel coronavirus. What he had previously termed “just a flu” was now something “vicious” that is not the flu. Disparity in allocation and distribution of in-demand medical equipment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has confused and frustrated governors making increasingly frantic requests for masks, ventilators, medical gowns and testing kits, while an increasing number of officials wonder whether politics or just incompetence is playing a role in Florida’s prompt reception of 100 percent of its first two requests, others, like Oklahoma and Kentucky having received more of some equipment than they requested, while others, like Massachusetts and Maine have secured only a fraction of what they requested, and New York descends into the hell of having to decide between staff lives and patients (The Washington Post, April 1, 2020 front-page articles).

April 1, 2020: The coronavirus is no April fool’s joke, but it has certainly made a fool of U.S. leadership.

Conclusion: America’s leadership wasted precious time by failing to plan. Initial wishful thinking couple with denial and repeated downplaying coupled with refusal to learn from others already experiencing an upswing in number of infections and deaths, has resulted in the U.S. becoming the new epicenter of the pandemic while still playing catch-up. But it has also helped China and Russia step up to fill the void left by America’s retreat from leadership at home and abroad.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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