The world’s premier health agency pushed a flawed coronavirus containment strategy — until it disappeared from public view one day before the outbreak was declared a pandemic.
On January 17, the world’s most trusted public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced it was screening travelers from Wuhan, China, because of a new infectious respiratory illness striking that city.
It was the CDC’s first public briefing on the outbreak, coming as China reported 45 cases of the illness and two deaths linked to a seafood and meat market in Wuhan. Chinese health officials had not yet confirmed that the new illness was transmitted from person to person. But there was reason to believe that it might be: four days earlier, officials in Thailand confirmed their first case, a traveler from Wuhan who had not visited the seafood market.
“Based on the information that CDC has today, we believe the current risk from this virus to the general public is low,” said Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Messonnier, 54, was a veteran of the CDC’s renowned Epidemiological Intelligence Service, where she had risen through the ranks during the national responses to the anthrax attacks and the previous decade’s swine flu pandemic to eventually head the agency’s vaccines center.
Most of the novel coronavirus’s infections apparently went “from animals to people,” she explained, and human transmission was “limited.”
There were many reasons why the information the CDC had on January 17 was wrong. It was wrong because China’s leaders withheld what they already knew about the virus from the World Health Organization. It was wrong, perhaps, because Trump administration officials had cut CDC staffers in Beijing who might have reported the truth directly from China. And it was wrong because past coronavirus outbreaks provided a false guide to an illness new to humanity.