Alwaght- The US administration reportedly has removed a key public health position in Beijing intended to help detect disease outbreaks in China several months before the coronavirus pandemic began.
According to Reuters, the American disease expert, a medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency, left her post in July, according to four sources with knowledge of the issue. The first cases of the new coronavirus may have emerged as early as November, and as cases exploded, the Trump administration in February chastised China for censoring information about the outbreak and keeping U.S. experts from entering the country to help.
“It was heartbreaking to watch,” said Bao-Ping Zhu, a Chinese American who served in that role, which was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2007 and 2011. “If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster.”
Zhu and the other sources said the American expert, Dr. Linda Quick, was a trainer of Chinese field epidemiologists who were deployed to the epicenter of outbreaks to help track, investigate and contain diseases.
As an American CDC employee, they said, Quick was in an ideal position to be the eyes and ears on the ground for the United States and other countries on the coronavirus outbreak, and might have alerted them to the growing threat weeks earlier.
No other foreign disease experts were embedded to lead the program after Quick left in July, according to the sources. Zhu said an embedded expert can often get word of outbreaks early, after forming close relationships with Chinese counterparts.
Zhu and the other sources said Quick could have provided real-time information to U.S. and other officials around the world during the first weeks of the outbreak, when they said the Chinese government tamped down on the release of information and provided erroneous assessments.
Quick left amid a bitter U.S. trade dispute with China when she learned her federally funded post, officially known as resident adviser to the U.S. Field Epidemiology Training Program in China, would be discontinued as of September, the sources said. The U.S. CDC said it first learned of a “cluster of 27 cases of pneumonia” of unexplained origin in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31.
Since then, the outbreak of the disease known as COVID-19 has spread rapidly worldwide, killing more than 13,600 people, infecting more than 317,000. The epidemic has overwhelmed healthcare systems in some countries, including Italy, and threatens to do so in the United States and elsewhere.
During a press briefing on Sunday shortly after this story was first published, President Donald Trump dismissed the Reuters report as similar to other stories regarding the CDC that he described as “100 percent wrong,” without addressing whether the role had been eliminated.
U.S. CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield maintained the agency’s presence in China “is actually being augmented as we speak,” without elaborating.
In a statement to Reuters before the report was published, the CDC said the elimination of the adviser position did not hinder Washington’s ability to get information and “had absolutely nothing to do with CDC not learning of cases in China earlier.”
The agency said its decision not to have a resident adviser “started well before last summer and was due to China’s excellent technical capability and maturity of the program.”
The CDC said it has assigned two of its Chinese employees as “mentors” to help with the training program. The agency did not respond to questions about the mentors’ specific role or expertise.
The CDC would not make Quick, who still works for the agency, available for comment.
Asked for comment on Chinese transparency and responsiveness to the outbreak, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred Reuters to remarks by spokesman Geng Shuang on Friday. Geng said the country “has adopted the strictest, most comprehensive, and most thorough prevention and control measures in an open, transparent, and responsible manner, and informed the (World Health Organization) and relevant countries and regions of the latest situation in a timely manner.”
One disease expert told Reuters he was skeptical that the U.S. resident adviser would have been able to get earlier or better information to the Trump administration, given the Chinese government’s suppression of information.
“In the end, based on circumstances in China, it probably wouldn’t have made a big difference,” Scott McNabb, who was a CDC epidemiologist for 20 years and is now a research professor at Emory University. “The problem was how the Chinese handled it. What should have changed was the Chinese should have acknowledged it earlier and didn’t.”