“I Feel Anguished”: Research Center Head Warned of Pandemic Threat


April 9, 2020

The director of a research center that last year warned the Trump administration it wasn’t ready to handle a pandemic is now watching in horror as the coronavirus spreads.

“My first reaction was that this looked like the option that we feared the most,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The center in November 2019 released a report that the United States was ill-prepared for a pandemic. The report also urged the administration to better protect against the increasing likelihood of a global health crisis, but Morrison says White House officials responded to recommendations with silence and even resistance.

Within weeks, news broke of a mysterious and deadly new virus in China. The novel coronavirus has since infected more than one million people worldwide, killing tens of thousands. Cases in America are soaring.

“I feel anguished. These are gut-wrenching tragedies,” Morrison told FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith, in an interview for an upcoming documentary. “There will be thousands upon thousands of people in America who will die needlessly. They will experience preventable deaths, and there will be thousands of health workers whose lives will be imperiled and many of them will become sick and some of them will die because of our lack of preparedness.”

The research center in its report warned that the United States is “mired in a cycle of crisis and complacency—resulting in ad hoc, stop-go approaches and a short-sighted dependence on emergency interim funding which inevitably sputters to its end, returning us to a state of vulnerability.” The report also included seven key recommendations, such as adding health leadership to the White House National Security Council, creating a global health crises response corps in the United States, and paying into various national and international health emergency funds.

During the two years it took to complete the study, Morrison said its authors communicated with the Trump administration and members of agencies including the National Security Council and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The team also presented its findings to the same agencies and members of the White House before releasing the report. Without naming the White House officials, Morrison said they were polite and cordial, but that they did not comment on the recommendations at the time.

“Silence speaks for itself,” Morrison said. “I think that they didn’t want to get into an argument where they couldn’t easily win, and they didn’t want to admit the veracity of this conclusion.”

He has since witnessed the report turn prophetic, describing the U.S. government response to coronavirus as sluggish and lacking in high-level leadership. Even as a “team swung into action in the bowels of the White House immediately,” within days of the first World Health Organization statement about the virus, Morrison said communication with the president was delayed and appeared complicated by the impeachment process in Congress. “You had the alarm bells going off, but you did not have concerted action happening with speed and coherence connecting to the president in the way that it should,” he said.

Morrison, who was in touch with people inside the White House during the early days of the crisis, said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, wasn’t able to reach President Trump until Jan. 18 — more than two weeks after learning about the virus. Another two weeks passed before Azar declared a state of emergency, on Jan. 31. And as the crisis further unfolds, Morrison says he’s left wondering how many infections and deaths could have been prevented if the administration had been better prepared and acted sooner. “This pandemic we are facing today is the best chance we will ever see for breaking that cycle by virtue of the fact that it’s creating such a pervasive nightmare,” he said.

A full transcript of Morrison’s interview is available as part of FRONTLINE’s ongoing coronavirus coverage.

Correction: This story has been updated to include Morrison’s correct title.

Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



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