Trump White House Closed Office That Dealt With Pandemics

The 1918–20 “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic resulted in dramatic mortality worldwide.

If you are unaware, the Trump White House closed the office responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic in May 2018. In today’s Washington Post Dr. Beth Cameron describes the situation in “I ran the White House pandemic office. Trump closed it.” (Dr. Cameron is vice president for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She previously served as the senior director for global health security and biodefense on the White House National Security Council.)

She begins like this,

It’s impossible to assess the full impact of the 2018 decision to disband the White House office [of Global Health Security and Biodefense] responsible for this work Biological experts do remain in the White House and in our government. But it is clear that eliminating the office has contributed to the federal government’s sluggish domestic response. What’s especially concerning about the absence of this office today is that it was originally set up because a previous epidemic made the need for it quite clear.

Dr. Cameron also made clear that when the office was closed experts “called for the office’s reinstatement at the time.” Elaborating, she says,

In his remarks Wednesday night, the president talked about travel bans and the resilience of the U.S. economy but made little specific mention of the public health crisis unfolding across America — exactly the kind of detail a dedicated NSC pandemics infrastructure would have pushed to address. A directorate within the White House would have been responsible for coordinating the efforts of multiple federal agencies to make sure the government was backstopping testing capacity, devising approaches to manufacture and avoid shortages of personal protective equipment, strengthening U.S. lab capacity to process covid-19 tests, and expanding the health-care workforce.

And she concludes,

Pandemics, like weapons of mass destruction and climate change, are transnational threats with potentially existential consequences … Pandemic threats may not arise every year, but the White House should constantly prepare for them. We can’t afford for federal decision-makers to waste time relearning old lessons when they should be innovating and acting. Covid-19 wasn’t preventable, but it was predictable.

Finally, almost two years ago “Luciana Borio, director of medical and biodefense preparedness at the NSC, spoke at a symposium at Emory University to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic.” At that time she said, “The threat of pandemic flu is the number one health security concern,” she told the audience. “Are we ready to respond? I fear the answer is no.”

Update – When asked today about disbanding this office Trump called the reporter’s question “nasty.” Said he didn’t know anything about it. Even if he didn’t know anything about it when it happened, how does he not know about it now?

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