Pro Publica has released a new report on the CDC's response to the SARS-Cov2 virus [propublica.org]. The report provides a fascinating look into the workings of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [cdc.gov], tracking the agency from the first hint of the new virus until very recently, as they worked to understand the new virus, respond to the dangers it presented to the US and the world and desperately tried to limit the spread of the virus.
From the report:
At 7:47 a.m. on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Jay Butler pounded out a grim email to colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Butler, then the head of the agency’s coronavirus response, and his team had been trying to craft guidance to help Americans return safely to worship amid worries that two of its greatest comforts — the chanting of prayers and singing of hymns — could launch a deadly virus into the air with each breath.
The week before, the CDC had published its investigation of an outbreak at an Arkansas church that had resulted in four deaths. The agency’s scientific journal recently had detailed a superspreader event in which 52 of the 61 singers at a 2½-hour choir practice developed COVID-19. Two died.
Butler, an infectious disease specialist with more than three decades of experience, seemed the ideal person to lead the effort. Trained as one of the CDC’s elite disease detectives, he’d helped the FBI investigate the anthrax attacks, and he’d led the distribution of vaccines during the H1N1 flu pandemic when demand far outstripped supply.
Early that Sunday morning, as Americans across the country prepared excitedly to return to houses of worship, Butler, a churchgoer himself, poured his anguish and anger into an email to a few colleagues.
“I am very troubled on this Sunday morning that there will be people who will get sick and perhaps die because of what we were forced to do,” he wrote.
When the next history of the CDC is written, 2020 will emerge as perhaps the darkest chapter in its 74 years, rivaled only by its involvement in the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which federal doctors withheld medicine from poor Black men with syphilis, then tracked their descent into blindness, insanity and death.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s top career scientist, was one of the first to notice a brief report about four cases of “unexplained pneumonia” in Wuhan, China, in an emerging diseases bulletin. It followed a warning about a “red blotch disease” in the grape industry.
At 8:25 a.m. on Dec. 31, Schuchat emailed Butler and other colleagues asking if “any of your folks know more about the ‘unknown pneumonia’” in Wuhan.
Emails and calls bounced among the agency’s leaders, a handful of veterans with more than a century of experience among them. Dr. Dan Jernigan, the flu chief, and his boss, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, met at headquarters to plan. Within hours, they learned there were 27 cases — seven of them severe — with fever, difficulty breathing and a buildup of abnormal substances in the lungs. All the cases were believed to be connected to an outdoor seafood market. “Raises concern about SARS,” Messonnier wrote in an email.