Opinion | How America helped defeat the coronavirus *
I don’t know about you, but I need a wellness story right now. Amid America’s botched response to the pandemic, I was looking for something I felt proud of. And in these caves, I found great American achievement, a story of leadership, foresight and ingenuity. Scientists come here for a remarkable rescue mission. It starts with catching these little guys. Back in the lab, they collect bat saliva, bat blood, and even bat stool, all to build a library of potentially dangerous viruses. And here is one of the heroes of this story. Yes. Of course, we are not in America. We had to travel 8,000 miles to find a place where our fight against the pandemic is something to be proud of. You might think we messed up Covid, but I’ll show you how these bats and your taxes gave the world a head start against the coronavirus. It’s just not in America. Our story begins one January morning with a mysterious infection making headlines. “Singer Justin Bieber has revealed he’s battling Lyme disease.” Devastating. And find out what was the second most important story of the day. “And scientists say a new virus, linked to SARS, could be responsible for a mysterious pneumonia epidemic in China. The new coronavirus was found in… ”Yes, the American media had not yet fully grasped the importance of this mysterious pneumonia. But countries like Thailand were already preparing at full speed for a possible epidemic. This is where Dr Supaporn comes in. She is one of the top virus researchers in Thailand. And this very morning, she was testing a blood sample taken from a 61-year-old woman who had just arrived in Bangkok from Wuhan with a fever. The sample had been sent to Dr. Supaporn’s lab with a question. Could it be the same virus that is causing the mysterious disease in China? Due to her work with exotic viruses in bats, Dr. Supaporn had the expertise to perform a sophisticated analysis on the Wuhan sample. And you wouldn’t know – [ALARM] “Thailand has reported the first case of Wuhan coronavirus found outside of China.” It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of this achievement, identifying a virus that caused a pandemic when we were most 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 she did not have cancer.” It’s 2020 for you. Thailand has 66 million inhabitants and is right next to China. Dr Supaporn’s discovery gave them an invaluable head start in the fight against Covid, saving thousands of lives. And if you think, well, well for them, that accomplishment actually has America’s fingerprints all over it. “Hi.” It’s about time you met Dennis Carroll. You might be wondering why the background is swaying a bit. “Well, we’re on my boat.” Yes. It is also his home. Pretty cold lifestyle. But for decades, he has traveled the world, helping countries control viral epidemics. Eventually, Dennis realized that 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, which is to go to viruses before they come to us.” Armed with $ 200 million from your taxes, Dennis and his team spent the next decade training scientists to be virus hunters, including – Yes, Dr. Supaporn is a Predict alumnus. It was there that she learned about the sophisticated test that identified the new coronavirus. Thailand’s first breakthrough? We funded it. And Thailand isn’t the only place I’ve found an American Covid success story. Imagine the scene. It’s a December morning, and we are in a small room in Seoul. Twenty-five scientists are gathered around a table. By the way, this is Dr. Sang-won Lee. And he was one of the scientists behind 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 working on Covid-19 weeks before anyone ever heard of it. What South Korea has learned from the game is that it was completely unprepared for mass testing in the event of the coronavirus pandemic. So what did they do? To be clear, these were tests for the mass-producing coronavirus before the pandemic. And it paid off. “The response in South Korea has been so widely applauded.” “This is considered the gold standard.” Less than a month after the first positive case, the government had tested more than 13,000 people. Fun fact: In the United States, we had our first positive case on the exact same day as Korea. But on February 20, our test numbers were less than a fifth of theirs. So wait. What is the American success story here? “Hello.” Let me introduce to you an American epidemiologist, CDC veteran, Dr. Sangwoo Tak. In 2014, he was part of a team of American scientists and military leaders who presented their Korean counterparts with a really cool way to simulate potential disasters. “And that’s how they were able to start doing their own tabletop exercise.” That’s right. This role-playing game that saves lives? It was an American idea. South Korea is a wealthy country with great experience in epidemics. But America helped them build a nationwide network of labs and inspired them to collaborate with private companies to develop all of these early tests. They even renamed their own public health office the KCDC. “The USCDC was the world’s first unprecedented public health institution.” And South Korea isn’t the CDC’s only fanboy. There are dozens of CDCs around the world. “This is the institution you would go to for advice, to show leadership.” America has played an important role in the fight against 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 very contagious bird flu was spreading across the world, killing tens of millions of chickens. I know, it sounds strange now. But at the time, it really scared the public health leaders and this guy. “The pandemic looks a lot like a forest fire. If detected early, it can be extinguished with limited damage. If it is allowed to consume itself undetected, it can become hell that quickly spreads beyond our ability to control it. “Avian flu really marked a turning point.” And the upshot of that is that America wrote all of these super detailed pandemic manuals with details on exactly how to fight a virus. You know, really obscure techniques like testing, contact tracing, social distancing. And to be clear, no one said “America first”. “The international reach of the response and detection necessary to protect not only our own people, but people around the world as well.” “A threat that emerges anywhere in the world could pose a threat anywhere in the world. No place was safe, and that sort of became a fundamental driver of American strategy. That’s why the United States has sent money and experts around the world to help other countries develop their own pandemic plans, set up more sophisticated labs, and train thousands of detectives. diseases. It was a laboratory funded by the Ministry of Defense in Egypt that confirmed some of the first cases of MERS in 2012. A year later, US money and training were key to helping China stop a new strain of bird flu. And US-trained disease detectives have been at the forefront of defeating Ebola in West Africa – “We’re going to train contact tracers.” – polio in South Asia – “The CDC is the soul of this program.” – Zika in the Americas, and of course many of those countries using our training, investments, and playbooks, have crushed Covid this year. “The United States deserves huge credit for being 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 big American Covid hit. “(CHANTING) USAUSAUSAUSAUSA” I have a lot of people in Korea who come to me and ask me how the USCDC failed in this response. It is embarrassing to see how America is going through what it is going through right now. But I don’t think the USCDC failed. I think it is the US government that is not supporting what the USCDC could do. In the years that we have been running simulations, we have imagined all possible scenarios of what kind of virus, where it might emerge, how it might be transmitted, which would make it difficult to control – civil war, civil disruption. The only factor we never captured in these simulations as a variable was leadership. And it never occurred to any of us that our political leadership would fail us so miserably. Today, countries around the world embody the American spirit better than we do. They have relied on our training and invested their own resources to tackle the biggest public health challenge of the century. America ran pandemic simulations as recently as August 2019. Korea has learned from theirs. We did not do it. By early January, the coronavirus was also in America. Thailand was looking for him. We weren’t. If we are to beat the coronavirus, we must follow our own advice. Follow the methods we invented and learn from the people we once inspired. “The coronavirus has taught us why we have to work with other countries.” “Countries are increasingly suspicious of American leadership. It has been erratic. It was selfish. It was America first. We are going to have to re-establish that our leadership is with the intention of the global good, not just our own good, and that will not happen overnight.