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Former head of pandemic response team speaks out: 'I'm frankly scared'

Suzanne Smalley
·5 min read
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The official who oversaw epidemic preparedness for the National Security Council under President Obama said the absence of public guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic leaves her “frankly scared” — and that eliminating her position weakened the American response to the coronavirus when it emerged 18 months later.

Beth Cameron, who served as senior director for global health security and biodefense on the NSC until early 2017, was interviewed on the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast. “I’m frankly scared that our CDC is not out in front talking about this,” Cameron said. “The CDC is our gold standard for public health, and we’re in the middle of one of the largest public health crises we’ve ever faced, certainly in my lifetime, and they’re not at the table, they’re not out in front. And I think we’re really suffering from that right now.”

Tensions between the CDC and the White House have been evident since late February when senior CDC official Nancy Messonnier publicly contradicted President Trump, warning Americans to prepare for the possibility the new virus would severely disrupt daily life, at a time when the administration was downplaying its likely effects.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 22 : President Donald J. Trump listens as Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Wednesday, April 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a briefing April 22 with President Trump and members of the coronavirus task force. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The administration reportedly watered down CDC guidelines for reopening, blocking the release of a detailed plan agency officials favored. In recent days, anonymous CDC officials have told CNN they were prepared to issue a global travel alert on March 5, after noticing a number of new cases in Europe, but for unexplained reasons the alert didn’t go out until nearly a week later. A CDC spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In her position in the NSC, Cameron briefed White House officials about pandemic preparedness and sent several memos about the larger threat, including to President Trump early in his administration, before COVID-19 had emerged. While serving as national security adviser, John Bolton eliminated the office in August 2018 as part of a reorganization of the NSC and placed bio-preparedness officials elsewhere in the NSC bureaucracy. Cameron believes abolishing the office as a stand-alone unit left the administration in the dark about the gravity of the coronavirus threat.

“We would have been asking a lot of questions about preparedness for testing,” Cameron said. “A really robust public health response to start tracking down where the cases were across the United States, isolating those cases, tracking contacts, all of those things we’re talking about now, we really should have been talking about in January.”

Cameron, who is now the vice president for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear weapons threats, said the NSC pandemic office would have been able to identify “points of failure” and likely supply chain problems before the disease began spreading in the U.S. And eliminating her office reduced the prominence of global health in the overall NSC portfolio, meaning the president and his top advisers received fewer briefings on the subject and were less informed about the seriousness of the looming threat.

It could be years before life returns to normal, Cameron said. When social distancing measures are relaxed, it will be vital to have sufficient testing and contact tracing infrastructure in place to ensure new infections can be tamped down, she added. All of that remains impossible to do.

“Unfortunately, right now we still don’t have decreasing case counts for over 14 days in a number of states around the country, we still don’t have sufficient contact tracing workforce to isolate and contain the disease around the country and we still don’t have sufficient testing in many states,” Cameron said.

Beth Cameron, vice president for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Institute. (photo: NTI)
Beth Cameron, vice president for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Institute. (NTI)

While early vaccine trials are showing positive results in monkeys, she said, it may be a long time before a vaccine is ready.

“Betting on any specific vaccine until you’ve gone through the clinical trials required to test it out is really a challenging business,” she said. “I’m hopeful, but I’m definitely not confident, because I don’t have any data on which to be that confident at the moment.”

Delivering a vaccine to the world’s 7 billion people also will be challenging and time-consuming, she said. Asked if Americans need to be prepared for another three years of social distancing, Cameron said she believes it could be longer than a year and emphasized how difficult it is to make predictions when we know so little about the virus.

In recent weeks, baseless conspiracy theories about how the coronavirus developed and spread as well as about dangers posed by a vaccine have gone viral on online.

Cameron said some states have begun investing in public-facing decision-making tools about the virus, a move she hailed in an age of disinformation, when fear seems to drive many people’s thinking.

“What needs to happen, and it needs to happen at the federal level as well as at the state and local level, is really honest, constant, fact-based communication where people know exactly what we know and what we don’t know,” she said. “Just being really honest.”

Correction: The headline on an earlier version of this story said Cameron had been dismissed by John Bolton. In fact she left her post before Bolton’s reorganization of the NSC.


Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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