Anatomy of an American Failure – How the virus won
The Atlantic|September 2020
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Anatomy of an American Failure – How the virus won
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation.
By Ed Yong

How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation.

America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, at the moment, to truly fathom.

In the first half of 2020, SARS-CoV-2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID-19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million. But few countries have been as severely hit as the United States, which has just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. These numbers are estimates. The actual toll, though undoubtedly higher, is unknown, because the richest country in the world still lacks sufficient testing to accurately count its sick citizens.

Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise— it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.

OPENING SPREAD: NEW YORK CITY AT THE HEIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP AND THE CORONAVIRUS TASK FORCE BRIEF THE PRESS AT THE WHITE HOUSE.

Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The decadeslong process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their lives for their livelihood. The same social media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.

The U.S. has little excuse for its inattention. In recent decades, epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, Zika, and monkeypox showed the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. Health experts, business leaders, and even middle schoolers ran simulated exercises to game out the spread of new diseases. In 2018, I wrote an article for The Atlantic arguing that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, and sounded warnings about the fragility of the nation’s healthcare system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the COVID-19 debacle has also touched—and implicated— nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.

SARS-CoV-2 is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way. Its symptoms can be severe enough to kill millions but are often mild enough to allow infections to move undetected through a population. It spreads quickly enough to overload hospitals, but slowly enough that statistics don’t spike until too late. These traits made the virus harder to control, but they also softened the pandemic’s punch. SARS-CoV-2 is neither as lethal as some other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, nor as contagious as measles. Deadlier pathogens almost certainly exist. Wild animals harbor an estimated 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could potentially jump into humans. How will the U.S. fare when “we can’t even deal with a starter pandemic?,” Zeynep Tufekci,a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and an Atlantic contributing writer, asked me.

Despite its epochal effects, COVID-19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festersing wound, and reopened scar.

A PANDEMIC CAB BE PREVENTED in two ways: Stop an infection from ever arising, or stop an infection from becoming thousands more. The first way is likely impossible. There are simply too many viruses and too many animals that harbor them. Bats alone could host thousands of unknown coronaviruses; in some Chinese caves, one out of every 20 bats is infected. Many people live near these caves, shelter in them, or collect guano from them for fertilizer. Thousands of bats also fly over these people’s villages and roost in their homes, creating opportunities for the bats’ viral stowaways to spill over into human hosts. Based on antibody testing in rural parts of China, Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that studies emerging diseases, estimates that such viruses infect a substantial number of people every year. “Most infected people don’t know about it, and most of the viruses aren’t transmissible,” Daszak says. But it takes just one transmissible virus to start a pandemic.

Sometime in late 2019, the wrong virus left a bat and ended up, perhaps via an intermediate host, in a human—and another, and another. Eventually, it found its way to the Huanan seafood market and jumped into dozens of new hosts in an explosive super-spreading event. The COVID-19 pandemic had begun.

A RECORD NUMBER OF BODIES BEING PROCESSED AT A FUNERAL HOME IN QUEENS, NEW YORK.

“There is no way to get spillover of everything to zero,” Colin Carlson, an ecologist at Georgetown University, told me. Many conservationists jump on epidemics as opportunities to ban the wildlife trade or the eating of “bush meat,” an exoticized term for “game,” but few diseases have emerged through either route. Carlson said the biggest factors behind spillovers are land-use change and climate change, both of which are hard to control. Our species has relentlessly expanded into previously wild spaces. Through intensive agriculture, habitat destruction, and rising temperatures, we have uprooted the planet’s animals, forcing them into new and narrower ranges that are on our own doorsteps. Humanity has squeezed the world’s wildlife in a crushing grip—and viruses have come bursting out.

Curtailing those viruses after they spillover is more feasible, but requires knowledge, transparency, and decisiveness that were lacking in 2020. Much about coronaviruses is still unknown. There are no surveillance networks for detecting them as there are for influenza. There are no approved treatments or vaccines. Coronaviruses were formerly a niche family, of mainly veterinary importance. Four decades ago, just 60 or so scientists attended the first international meeting on coronaviruses. Their ranks swelled after SARS swept the world in 2003, but quickly dwindled as a spike in funding vanished. The same thing happened after MERS emerged in 2012. This year, the world’s coronavirus experts—and there still aren’t many—had to postpone their triennial conference in the Netherlands because SARS-CoV-2 made flying too risky.

AN UNEMPLOYED WOMAN IN HOUSTON

In the age of cheap air travel, an outbreak that begins on one continent can easily reach the others. SARS already demonstrated that in 2003, and more than twice as many people now travel by plane every year. To avert a pandemic, affected nations must alert their neighbors quickly. In 2003, China covered up the early spread of SARS, allowing the new disease to gain a foothold, and in 2020, history repeated itself. The Chinese government downplayed the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was spreading among humans, and only confirmed as much on January 20, after millions had traveled around the country for the lunar new year. Doctors who tried to raise the alarm were censored and threatened. One, Li Wenliang, later died of COVID-19. The World Health Organization initially parroted China’s line and did not declare a public health emergency of international concern until January 30. By then, an estimated 10,000 people in 20 countries had been infected, and the virus was spreading fast.

The United States has correctly castigated China for its duplicity and the WHO for its laxity—but the U.S. has also failed the international community. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has withdrawn from several international partnerships and antagonized its allies. It has a seat on the WHO’s executive board, but left that position empty for more than two years, only filling it this May, when the pandemic was in full swing. Since 2017, Trump has pulled more than 30 staffers out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s office in China, who could have warned about the spreading coronavirus. Last July, he defunded an American epidemiologist embedded within China’s CDC. America First was America oblivious.

Even after warnings reached the U.S., they fell on the wrong ears. Since before his election, Trump has cavalierly dismissed expertise and evidence. He filled his administration with inexperienced newcomers while depicting career civil servants as part of a “deep state.” In 2018, he dismantled an office that had been assembled specifically to prepare for nascent pandemics. American intelligence agencies warned about the coronavirus threat in January, but Trump habitually disregards intelligence briefings. The secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, offered similar counsel and was twice ignored.

AN EMPTY STREET IN BOSTON IN THE EARLY MONTHS OF THE PANDEMIC.

Being prepared means being ready to spring into action, “so that when something like this happens, you’re moving quickly,” Ronald Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, told me. “By early February, we should have triggered a series of actions, precisely zero of which were taken.” Trump could have spent those crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border. On January 31, Trump announced that the U.S. would bar entry to foreigners who had recently been in China, and urged Americans to avoid going there.

In the middle of the greatest health and economic crises in generations, millions of Americans have found themselves impoverished and disconnected from medical care.

Travel bans make intuitive sense because travel obviously enables the spread of a virus. But in practice, travel bans are woefully inefficient at restricting either travel or viruses. They prompt people to seek indirect routes via third-party countries or to deliberately hide their symptoms. They are often porous: Trump’s included numerous exceptions and allowed tens of thousands of people to enter from China. Ironically, they create travel: When Trump later announced a ban on flights from continental Europe, a surge of travelers packed America’s airports in a rush to beat the incoming restrictions. Travel bans may sometimes work for remote island nations, but in general, they can only delay the spread of an epidemic— not stop it. And they can create harmful false confidence, so countries “rely on bans to the exclusion of the things they actually need to do—testing, tracing, building up the health system,” says Thomas Bollyky, a global-health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That sounds an awful lot like what happened in the U.S.”

BLOOD SAMPLES IN A LAB IN FLORIDA.

This was predictable. A president who is fixated on an ineffectual border wall, and has portrayed asylum seekers as vectors of disease, was always going to reach for travel bans as a first resort. And Americans who bought into his rhetoric of xenophobia and isolationism were going to be especially susceptible to thinking that simple entry controls were a panacea.

And so the U.S. wasted its best chance of restraining COVID-19. Although the disease first arrived in the U.S. in mid-January, genetic evidence shows that the specific viruses that triggered the first big outbreaks, in Washington State, didn’t land until mid-February. The country could have used that time to prepare. Instead, Trump, who had spent his entire presidency learning that he could say whatever he wanted without consequence, assured Americans that “the corona virus is very much under control,” and “like a miracle, it will disappear.” With impunity, Trump lied. With impunity, the virus spread.

On February 26, Trump asserted that cases were “going to be down to close to zero.” Over the next two months, at least 1 million Americans were infected.

AS THE CORONAVIRUS established itself in the U.S., it found a nation through which it could spread easily, without being detected. For years, Pardis Sabeti, a virologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has been trying to create a surveillance network that would allow hospitals in every major U.S. city to quickly track new viruses through genetic sequencing. Had that network existed, once Chinese scientists published SARS-CoV-2’s genome on January 11, every American hospital would have been able to develop its own diagnostic test in preparation for the virus’s arrival. “I spent a lot of time trying to convince many funders to fund it,” Sabeti told me. “I never got anywhere.”

THE USNS MERCY ARRIVES IN THE PORT OF LOS ANGELES TO PROVIDE HELP TO OVERSTRETCHED HOSPITALS.

The CDC developed and distributed its own diagnostic tests in late January. These proved useless because of a faulty chemical component. Tests were in such short supply, and the criteria for getting them were so laughably stringent, that by the end of February, tens of thousands of Americans had likely been infected but only hundreds had been tested. The official data were so clearly wrong that The Atlantic developed its own volunteerled initiative— the COVID Tracking Project—to count cases.

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September 2020