Watch “COVID WAR: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” at 9 p.m. Sunday, March 28, only on CNN.
Within weeks, in Houston, Washington, DC and Baltimore, our team secured large, nondescript ballrooms with plenty of space and ventilation to allow these extraordinary one-on-one conversations to take place with Dr. Deborah Birx. , Dr Anthony Fauci, Dr Brett Giroir, Dr Stephen Hahn, Dr Robert Kadlec and Dr Robert Redfield.
Given our shared medical history, I explained to each of the doctors that I was going to frame the discussions in a way that would be difficult, but familiar: like an autopsy.
We were going to meticulously dissect and discuss how the United States became home to the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreak.
Most of the doctors I interviewed are household names these days, but you’ve probably only heard them in sound bites or seen them briefly at the lectern in the White House briefing room. All but one of the doctors are now private citizens, unbridled and unrestrained by the watchful eyes of the White House, and they had a lot to say. Our cathartic and candid discussions lasted for hours, covered a wide range of topics, and were sometimes horrific in what they revealed.
The first cut
When I met Dr. Robert Redfield on a snowy February day in Baltimore, his mood was both thoughtful and determined. A virologist by training, Redfield was asked by President Donald Trump in 2018 to lead the CDC after a long career in public health. Before the pandemic, the new director had largely focused on two other epidemics: opioids and HIV / AIDS. Alongside his colleagues Fauci and Birx, Redfield has been best known for decades for his work as one of the world’s leading AIDS researchers.
As with his tenure as director of the CDC, Redfield’s earlier career had not been without controversy. In the 1980s and 1990s, as one of the military’s top AIDS researchers, he was accused of overestimating the effectiveness of a possible AIDS vaccine, although Redfield supported his job. During the Covid-19 pandemic, critics argued that Redfield had failed to protect the credibility of the huge science agency he had been tasked with leading and had been overtaken by an executive branch that was mixed up scientific guidelines from the CDC involving school closures and religious gatherings. Redfield, however, dismissed those concerns. When I asked him if he felt prepared for the job, he replied, “I think I’ve trained my whole life for it. ”
When we sat down to chat, just days after his successor, Dr Rochelle Walensky, took over the reins of the CDC, Redfield wanted to start from the beginning: China.
While all the doctors harbored deep suspicions about the information originally coming from China, Redfield was most telling. He believes the current pandemic started in Wuhan as a localized outbreak in September or October 2019 – well ahead of the official schedule – and then spread to all provinces in China over the next two months. The United States was not officially informed of the “mysterious group of pneumonia patients” until December 31, 2019. It was critical weeks and months that countries around the world could have prepared.
“So they were about 30 days early,” Kadlec said a few days before I sat down with Redfield.
Kadlec was the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, known as ASPR. “They were already buying things in the market way before we were,” he told me. “Even products made here in the United States, we found that domestic supplies were drying up because of overseas purchases. ”
And while the rest of the world learned that the only initial cases of Covid-19 in China came from a wet market in Wuhan, Redfield is convinced that the evidence suggests this simply was not the case. According to Redfield, even his Chinese CDC counterpart, Dr George Gao, was initially left in the dark about the extent of the problem until early January. He described a private phone call he had with Gao in early January 2020, when Gao became distraught and started crying after finding “a lot of cases” among people who had not been to the wet market. Gao, says Redfield, “came to the conclusion that the cat was out of the bag. ”
The initial death rates in China were somewhere between “5-10%,” Redfield told me. “I would probably cry too,” he added.
One of the most important things “that affected our success in this pandemic was not being allowed into China” earlier, he told me. Fauci echoed a similar sentiment when I asked him about it.
“I think it would have been a significant difference,” Fauci said. “I think if we had sent our people to Wuhan and been able to speak to Chinese scientists in a conversation that could have lasted an hour, you could have gotten so much information right off the bat. They would have told us, don I don’t believe what you’re reading. It spreads asymptomatically. It spreads very efficiently and it kills people. ”
According to Redfield, neither President Trump’s appeals to President Xi Jinping nor Secretary Alex Azar’s appeals to China’s Health Minister could get them in.
The question laid bare from our autopsy was: why?
The first symptoms
If American investigators had been allowed entry into China, there may be something else they discovered: the origins of the virus. Where and how this epidemic began is not simply an exercise in curiosity or an attempt to blame. It is essential that scientists and public health experts around the world try to stop future pandemics.
So far, the official word has been that this pandemic started when the new coronavirus was introduced by an intermediate species or passed directly from a bat to a human, which Redfield, the former CDC chief, said. , considers not to make “biological sense.” ”
Reminding me that his career was spent as a virologist, he told me, “I don’t believe it comes from a bat to a human. And at that time, the virus came to humans, became one of the most contagious. viruses that we know in mankind for human-to-human transmission… Normally, when a pathogen moves from a zoonot to humans, it takes a while for them to figure out how to become more and more effective. ”
Without ascribing intentionality, Redfield told me he believed the origin of the pandemic was a lab in China that was already studying the virus, exposing it to human cell cultures.
“Most of us in a lab, when we’re trying to grow a virus, we’re trying to help make it grow better and better, better and better, better, better and better so that we can to experiment and understand. the way i put it together. ”
It’s a controversial and politically charged theory – a theory that the World Health Organization calls “extremely unlikely”, and there has been no clear evidence to support this “lab leak” theory.
Yet more than a year after the outbreak, a team of scientists from the WHO in Wuhan has still not been able to determine the definitive origin of the virus. At this point, it’s not clear that they ever will.
In response to the Biden administration’s call for more transparency from China on data from the early days of the outbreak, China released a statement from its embassy in Washington, alleging that the United States “Are now pointing fingers at other countries”. Meanwhile, Chinese officials and state media have increasingly promoted an unfounded, so-called “multiple-origin” theory, suggesting that the pandemic may have started in various places around the world, even in a military laboratory. American.
Final cause of death
During nearly 20 hours of interviews, I asked each doctor the question that ends each autopsy. What do they think was the final cause of death? What led to the preventable deaths of so many Americans?
From the role of leadership and the cost of unpreparedness to citizens’ obligations to care for one another, Redfield and the Covid medics shared their painful lessons from the worst public health crisis of our lives.
Their responses offer an enlightening and frightening glimpse into what exactly happened in the past year, as well as a plan for how to handle the next one.
“As bad as it may be,” Kadlec told me, “it could be worse. And there will be another pandemic, guaranteed. ”