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A pandemic expert questions speed of U.S. response to novel coronavirus

As the threat of novel coronavirus looms over the U.S. and the globe, the CDC has taken steps to make testing kits available more broadly. But questions remain about the readiness of the government and the health system to cope with a major surge in infections. The Virome Project’s Dennis Carroll, former USAID director for pandemic influenza and emerging threats, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Centers for Disease Control's new timeline for getting coronavirus diagnostic testing kits to every state was welcome news today. But there have been questions about the country's ability to do enough tests in the event of a real outbreak.

    It's also raised larger questions about the health system's ability to deal with a major surge of patients.

    Dennis Carroll is the former director of the U.S. Agency For International Developments' Emerging Threats Division. He currently heads the Global Virome Project. It's a nonprofit global partnership working to prepare for potential future viral threats.

    Dennis Carroll, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Dennis Carroll:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, right now, does the United States have in place the systems, the materials that it needs to address what may be coming?

  • Dennis Carroll:

    The short answer is no.

    We do have the plans for what is needed. And I think the public health community in the United States, and certainly those at the Centers for Disease Control, have arced out a very excellent plan over the years on how to deal with exactly this situation.

    And for two months, we have known, since the beginning of January, that this is an imminent threat. A month ago, the WHO signaled that this was a public held event of international concern, which should have initiated political leadership to step forward and began authorizing the use of these plans.

    And what we have not seen is the execution or the leadership from the political communities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're saying it's been slow, slower than it should have been.

    What I want to ask you specifically about are those testing kits, a lot of focus on those. Are there enough available now for what may be coming in the near future?

  • Dennis Carroll:

    Oh, absolutely not.

    I mean, I think the strategic use of these kits, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control right now, really limit where we are testing. And it's largely around populations coming in from what we know to be infected areas, largely Asia.

    We know nothing about what may or may not be circulating within the United States. So, we have only tested 500 people. South Korea has tested tens of thousands of people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are there kits available elsewhere around the globe that the U.S. can access?

  • Dennis Carroll:

    Well, I don't really have insight into that.

    But it's clear that there's been a real challenge on the part of the United States to provide these kits. And it's a real exception. Historically, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has really been a leader in being able to generate these kits for other epidemics, other outbreaks.

    I think what we're looking at is a consequence of underfunding and underattention to the systems that are required to make this happen too.

    You just can't turn on a spigot and make a kit available.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We heard the secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, say today — he said the risk of Americans contracting the virus remains low, but he also said some 30 percent of Americans could become infected, and the vast majority would have low-level symptoms.

    But 30 percent, does that all alarm you? Does that sound like what you would expect, given what we see so far?

  • Dennis Carroll:

    Well, first off, the World Health Organization declared that this is a very high-level emergency today for the whole globe.

    I think what we are recognizing, that we don't know how many people will be infected, but what we do know is that it will be — community transmission will go on. We need to prepare for that. And significant parts of the population will be infected.

    And the numbers that we see coming out of Asia in terms of mortality, we should be very concerned about that happening here in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What would give you comfort? What would you — what do you want to see coming from the federal government, the important points inside the federal government that would give you the confidence that — frankly, that the country is more ready than you say it is right now?

  • Dennis Carroll:

    Well, we have seen in the past that an effective response begins with leadership at the top.

    And that has a way of trickling down through the entire system. And so you ask me what I would like to see. The White House really taking this issue seriously and recognizing that this represents an extraordinary public health risk to the people of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dennis Carroll, sobering words. Thank you.

  • Dennis Carroll:

    Thank you.

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