Even as China was announcing that its deaths from the novel coronavirus had surpassed its toll from SARS, President Donald Trump released a proposed budget for 2021 that slashed funding for our chief defender against epidemics by 18 percent.
Within the overall proposed cuts detailed on Feb. 10 for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was a reduction in spending to guard against “emerging and zoonotic diseases” from $635,772,000 to $550,464,000.
Zoonotic diseases are those that have crossed from animals to humans, as the novel coronavirus is believed to have done. The $85,308,000 proposed budget cut is less than the cost of 5 miles of border wall.
The budget proposal would save the cost of another 2 miles of border wall by zeroing out a $40 million funding line for the Epidemic and Lab Capacity Program. The ELCP supports state labs that monitor health emergencies at the local level. A state lab in Texas confirmed the first case of Ebola in the U.S. in 2014.
For the cost of less than 7 miles of border wall, the proposed budget would leave all of us less protected against a potential epidemic. The Trump administration made its priorities even more explicit when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar discounted a suggestion that border wall funds could be diverted to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
We might have had earlier warning of the outbreak, but previous budget cuts caused the CDC to end its global security program in China in 2017.
In another failure of foresight two years ago, the White House eliminated the National Security Council’s position for combating global health crises. The NSC’s Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biothreats post was held by the highly regarded Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer—whose sudden departure in May of 2018 happened to coincide with a new Ebola outbreak in Africa.
That outbreak proved to be no threat to America, so most of us quickly forgot about it. So what if there was no longer anybody on the security council to guard against such threats? And as long as the rich are getting their tax breaks and the stock market is booming, who cares if the CDC is being cut year after year?
But fear of this new bug caused the stock market to tank this week. And worrisome news came on Wednesday even as Trump was insisting there is little cause to worry because of his bold, prescient leadership.
California made the startling announcement that a resident of Solano County had tested positive for novel coronavirus without having traveled abroad or coming in contact with somebody known to be infected. The chronically underfunded public health system had needed four days to make the diagnosis, as the swab had to be sent to the CDC, which is hampered both by a shortage of tests and reliability problems with the ones it does have.
We can only hope that the doctors were able to get as much information as they could from the patient before she was intubated. One near-certainty is that she got it from somebody who is still out there.
Our Germophobe-in-Chief should consider that a president is as vulnerable as anybody else to a virus. President Woodrow Wilson was stricken while visiting France during the Spanish flu pandemic early in the last century. Wilson survived, but some historians believe he suffered lasting neurological damage that became apparent at the negotiating table, making for considerably less art to his dealing.
Wilson could have just as easily caught the flu at the White House. And the present viral threat could arrive there as easily as any other place with a cough or a shaken hand.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Trump announced that he was putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of responding to the threat.
Nobody who is aware of Pence’s role in enabling an HIV outbreak when he was governor of Indiana could have been rightly heartened by his new role. But one hopeful sign came when Pence enlisted the help of a physician scientist who has been leading the national fight against HIV. Dr. Deborah L. Birx will now direct the effort against novel coronavirus. She is held in nearly as high esteem as Rear Admiral Ziemer, but she is only now being put in place. Ziemer would have already been on the case had he not been pushed out.
Other hopeful news came with word that state laboratories across the country are poised to start testing for novel coronavirus. That effort will initially require $25 million, which is all but sure to be allocated now that Trump is suddenly prepared to answer the threat with bigger than big bucks
But the time to hire a fire chief and fund firehouses is before a fire.
And not even a thousand miles of border wall can keep out what may be already spreading amongst us.