How America Helped Defeat the Coronavirus*
Just not in the U.S.
I don’t know about you, but I need a feel-good story right now. In the midst of America’s botched pandemic response, I’ve been searching for something to feel proud of. And in these caves, I found a great American success story, a story of leadership, foresight and ingenuity. Scientists trek up here on a remarkable life-saving mission. It starts with catching these little guys. Back in the lab, they collect bat saliva, bat blood, even bat stool, all to build a library of potentially dangerous viruses. And here’s one of the heroes of this story. Yeah. Of course, we’re not in America. We had to travel 8,000 miles to find a place where our battle against the pandemic is something to be proud of. You may think we blew it on Covid, but I’ll show you how these bats and your tax dollars gave the world a head start against the coronavirus. It’s just not in America. Our story begins one morning in January with a mysterious infection leading the news. “Singer Justin Bieber revealed that he’s been battling Lyme disease.” Devastating. And check out what the second most important story of the day was. “And scientists say a new virus, related to SARS, may be responsible for a mysterious pneumonia outbreak in China. The new coronavirus was found in —” Yes, the American media hadn’t quite grasped the importance of that mysterious pneumonia yet. But countries like Thailand were already preparing full speed for a potential outbreak. This is where Dr. Supaporn comes in. She’s one of the top virus scientists in Thailand. And that very morning, she was testing a blood sample taken from a 61-year-old woman who’d just arrived in Bangkok from Wuhan with a fever. The sample had been sent to Dr. Supaporn’s lab with a question. Could this be the same virus that’s behind the mysterious illness in China? Because of her work with exotic viruses in bats, Dr. Supaporn had the expertise to do a sophisticated analysis on the sample from Wuhan. And wouldn’t you know — [ALARM] “Thailand has reported the first case of the Wuhan coronavirus found outside of China.” It’s hard to overstate just how big an achievement this was, identifying a pandemic-causing virus back when we were more concerned about Justin Bieber. Oh, by the way, the third most important story in the news that day? “Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed that she is cancer-free.” That’s 2020 for ya. Thailand’s got 66 million people, and it’s right next door to China. Dr. Supaporn’s discovery gave them an invaluable head start in the fight against Covid, saving thousands of lives. And if you’re thinking, well, good for them, this accomplishment actually has America’s fingerprints all over it. “Hi.” It’s time you met Dennis Carroll. You might be wondering why the background is swaying a bit. “Well, we’re on my boat.” Yeah. It’s also his house. Pretty chill lifestyle. But for decades, he traveled around the world, helping countries control viral outbreaks. Eventually, Dennis realized it wasn’t enough to respond to an outbreak. But hey. What if we could predict one instead? So in 2009, he created a program called Predict. “It was really a project to really explore the limits of viral discovery, that is, go to the viruses before they come to us.” Armed with $200 million of your tax dollars, Dennis and his team spent the next decade training scientists to become virus hunters, including — Yup, Dr. Supaporn is a Predict alumnus. That’s where she learned the sophisticated test that identified the novel coronavirus. Thailand’s early breakthrough? We funded it. And Thailand isn’t the only place I found an American Covid success story. Picture the scene. It’s a morning in December, and we’re in a small room in Seoul. Twenty-five scientists are gathered around a table. This is Dr. Sang-won Lee, by the way. And he was one of the scientists leading this kind of role-playing game. Oh, OK, well, it’s more like a rehearsal, a rehearsal for a pandemic. They created an imaginary scenario. And you’ll never guess what it was. No kidding. These guys were actually workshopping Covid-19 weeks before anyone had ever heard of it. What South Korea learned from the game was they were totally unprepared for mass testing in the event of a coronavirus pandemic. So what did they do? Just to be clear, they were mass-producing coronavirus tests before the pandemic. And it paid off. “The response in South Korea has been so widely applauded.” “This is considered the gold standard.” Within a month of the first positive case, the government had tested more than 13,000 people. Fun fact: In the United States, we got our first positive case on the exact same day as Korea. But by February 20, our testing numbers were less than a fifth of theirs. So wait. What’s the American success story here? “Hello.” Let me introduce you to an American epidemiologist, a C.D.C. veteran, Dr. Sangwoo Tak. Back in 2014, he was part of a team of American scientists and military leaders who introduced their Korean counterparts to a really cool way to simulate potential disasters. “And that’s how they were able to start doing its own tabletop exercise.” That’s right. That life-saving role-playing game? That was an American idea. South Korea is a wealthy country with lots of experience with epidemics. But America helped them build a nationwide network of labs and inspired them to collaborate with private companies to develop all those early tests. They even renamed their own public health office the K.C.D.C. “The U.S. C.D.C. has been the leading public health institution in the world, bar none.” And South Korea isn’t the only C.D.C. fanboy. There are dozens of C.D.C.s all around the world. “This is the institution you would go to for guidance, for leadership.” America has been playing point on fighting emerging viral diseases around the world for 15 years. So what happened 15 years ago? “The Facebook.com.” “Are you a virgin?” “The winner, Carrie Underwood!” Well, yes, that, but also a highly infectious bird flu was spreading across the globe, killing tens of millions of chickens. I know, that seems quaint now. But at the time, it really spooked public health leaders, and also, this guy. “Pandemic is a lot like a forest fire. If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it.” “Avian influenza really was a watershed moment.” And the result of that is America authored all these super-detailed pandemic playbooks with specifics on exactly how to fight a virus. You know, really obscure techniques, like testing, contact tracing, social distancing. And to be clear, no one was saying “America first.” “The international scope of response and detection necessary to protect not only our own people, but people around the world.” “A threat that emerges anywhere in the world could pose a threat to everywhere in the world. No place was safe, and that became sort of a fundamental driver behind the U.S. strategy.” That’s why the U.S. sent money and experts all around the world to help other countries make their own pandemic plans, set up more sophisticated labs, and trained thousands of disease detectives. It was a Defense Department-funded lab in Egypt that confirmed some of the first cases of MERS in 2012. A year later, U.S. money and training were key in helping China stop a new strain of the bird flu. And U.S.-trained disease detectives have been on the front lines defeating Ebola in West Africa — “We’re going out to train contact tracers.” — polio in South Asia — “C.D.C. is the soul of this program.” — Zika in the Americas, and of course, many of these countries using our training, investments and playbooks, have crushed Covid this year. “The United States deserves an enormous amount of credit for having been able to work with and support countries around the world to better prepare for events like the Covid-19 virus.” I told you this was going to be a great American Covid success. “(CHANTING) U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.” I have a lot of people in Korea coming to me and ask about how U.S. C.D.C. failed in this response. It’s embarrassing to see how the United States is experiencing what it’s experiencing now. But I don’t think U.S. C.D.C. failed. I think it’s U.S. government not supporting what U.S. C.D.C. could do. In the years that we ran simulations, we imagined every possible scenario of what type of virus, where it might emerge, how it might be transmitted, what would make it challenging to control — civil war, civil disruption. The one factor we never entered into those simulations as a variable was leadership. And it never occurred to any of us our political leadership would fail us so miserably. Today countries around the world are embodying the American spirit better than we are. They’ve built on top of our training and invested their own resources to beat the century’s greatest public health challenge. America has run pandemic simulations as recently as August 2019. Korea learned from theirs. We didn’t. In early January, coronavirus was in America too. Thailand was looking for it. We weren’t. If we want to defeat the coronavirus, we need to take our own advice. Follow the methods we invented and learn from the people we once inspired. “Coronavirus taught us why we need to work together with other countries.” “Countries have increasingly grown to mistrust U.S. leadership. It’s been erratic. It’s been selfish. It’s been America first. We’re going to have to re-establish that our leadership is with the intent of the global good, not just our own good, and that will not happen overnight.”
We’ve all heard how U.S. leadership failed its citizens with its pandemic response. We had the playbooks, we had the money, we had the experts. We just … didn’t use them.
But it turns out, other countries did. Because U.S. public health leaders and scientists have been planning for a catastrophe just like Covid-19 for decades, and, in typical American fashion, we didn’t just write the pandemic playbook — we exported it around the world.
In this video, we went searching for evidence that the public health innovations and scientific progress this country is famous for are still alive and well. Our journey to find lifesaving American initiatives introduced us to some interesting people: from a virus hunter in the bat caves in Thailand to a group of South Korean epidemiologists who just might have predicted this pandemic.
What we found doesn’t change the fact that more than 220,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, but it sheds light on a part of the U.S. pandemic response that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention: that America’s decades of pandemic planning actually did save lives. Just not at home.
Sanya Dosani (@saninamillion), Alexander Stockton (@AStocktonFilms)
and Adam Westbrook are producers with Opinion Video.
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