Just five months before China saw its first coronavirus cases, the Trump administration quietly dismissed an important public health official there. The official, who worked inside China’s own Center for Disease Control, had the job of spotting outbreaks in that country that could explode in global pandemics.
The departure of the official, medical epidemiologist Linda Quick, was first reported on Sunday by Reuters, who reported that her departure in July was confirmed by “four sources with knowledge of the issue.”
“If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster,” a scientist who has served in the same role from 2007 to 2001, Bao-Ping Zhu, told Reuters, calling the pandemic “heartbreaking to watch,” as a result.
According to Reuters’ sources, Quick’s role was to train Chinese field epidemiologists, who in turn would track, investigate, and control new disease outbreaks. The sources said that Quick was in an “ideal position to be the eyes and ears on the ground” to alert the U.S. government, and those in other countries, about the coronavirus outbreak. If she, or a replacement, had been in the job, the U.S. could have been alerted to the pandemic threat weeks earlier, the sources said.
The revelation that the health official’s job in China had been eliminated was the latest example of Trump administration cutbacks in the government’s pandemic response capabilities. Starting in 2018, Trump began dismantling the National Security Council’s global health security office, according to a report by USA Today. That office was charged with coordinating the administration’s pandemic response efforts.
When asked why he got rid of the NSC office at a recent press conference, Trump called the question “nasty” and claimed that he did not “know anything about” the elimination of the office.
“The extent to which Trump took apart the infrastructure that you’d want to have in place to respond to an outbreak is breathtaking,” said former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes, via his Twitter account, following publication of the Reuters report detailing the elimination of Quick’s position in China.
Trump’s elimination of the NSC health security office “clearly reflected the White House’s misplaced priorities and has proven to be a gross misjudgment,” according to Center for Global Development policy fellow Jeremy Konyndyk, as quoted by USA Today.
Trump has been subject to criticism for his delayed response to the coronavirus outbreak. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies started briefing the Trump administration on the coronavirus outbreak in January, but Trump’s advisers “just couldn’t get him to do anything about it.”