According to a report from Reuters, a key American public health position was eliminated by the Trump administration several months prior to the current coronavirus pandemic. That position, embedded in Beijing, had sought to try and detect disease outbreaks from China.
The person who had held that position, Dr. Linda Quick, left her post in July 2019. The first case of coronavirus in a human is believed to have been contracted in November of last year.
As cases continued to tick upward at an alarming rate, the Trump administration rebuked China for suppressing info about the disease and its spread, and from preventing experts from entering that country to provide aid.
Quick was officially an employee of the CDC. According to a previous holder of her position (Bao-Ping Zhu), she was in a position that he believes could've made her the eyes and ears for the U.S. in the midst of the initial outbreak.
After Quick left the position, no other experts were put in place to replace her. As Reuters writes, the timing is unfortunate because it's believed that the Chinese government hasn't been on the level with this outbreak at all. As they put it:
Zhu and the other sources said Quick could have provided real-time information to U.S. and other officials around the world during the first weeks of the outbreak, when they said the Chinese government tamped down on the release of information and provided erroneous assessments.
Quick left the position after a bitter trade dispute between the U.S. and China led her to learn that her post would no longer exist as of September 2019. The CDC says they first learned of "27 cases of pneumonia" with no explanation of what caused the cluster in Wuhan, China, on December 31.
From there, the disease has spread outward, with a constantly increasing worldwide figure of more than 335,000 confirmed cases, and more than 14,600 deaths. The spread has also overwhelmed healthcare officials in multiple nations, with the U.S. looking like its heading for that same fate.
In contrast with the conclusions drawn by some sources in Reuters' write-up, the CDC contends that the elimination of the position didn't affect Washington's ability to learn of the virus, and it further states that the job loss "had absolutely nothing to do with CDC not learning of cases in China earlier."
It claims that the decision to get rid of the position was set "well before last summer," by reasoning that it was no longer necessary.
Though she's no longer in the aforementioned role, Quick still works for that organization. She was not made available to comment for Reuters.
“CDC has had a 30-year partnership with China CDC and close collaboration,” the U.S. agency said in a statement. “We had the right staff to engage China and ability to provide technical assistance were it requested.”
Scott McNabb, who is a research professor at Emory University following a 20-year career as an epidemiologist (meaning he studies this) for the CDC doesn't think that, if Quick's position still existed, it would've mattered due to the Chinese government's reputation for censoring information anyway.
“In the end, based on circumstances in China, it probably wouldn’t have had made a big difference,” McNabb commented. “The problem was how the Chinese handled it. What should have changed was the Chinese should have acknowledged it earlier and didn’t.”
Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, previously told CNN that he and CDC director Robert Redfield had made an official offer to put a CDC team into China during the first week of January 2020, but that they did not get permission to do so.
“Dr. Redfield and I made the offer on January 6th - 36 days ago, 60,000 cases and 1,300 deaths ago,” Azar said to the news organization on February 14. “We made the offer to send the CDC experts in to assist their Chinese colleagues to get to the bottom of key scientific questions like, how transmissible is this disease? What is the severity? What is the incubation period and can there be asymptomatic transmission?”
A team was allowed to go in on February 16, after the World Health Organization got them permission to do so. That team had two U.S. experts aboard. However, by that mid-February date, China had over 75,000 cases.
Because of all that, the CDC maintains that staffing decisions weren't the cause of the U.S.'s inability to learn about the virus prior to its worldwide outbreak.
Dr. George Conway, who is a medical epidemiologist who served as a resident advisor for three years and knows Quick, said that the position's funding was often debated because U.S. officials believed China should be funding their own training programs.
In any event, it's extraordinarily unfortunate that this all went down in the year(s) that a pandemic burst past any attempted, incompetent or otherwise, containment.