The editor of The Lancet fact-checked the president just days after publishing an editorial calling for Americans to vote him out.
On Tuesday, the editor of one of the world’s oldest and best-known medical journals took a moment to address a letter President Trump sent to the World Health Organization. In it, the president threatened to permanently drop U.S. funding unless WHO commits to “substantive improvements” over the next 30 days. Trump cites reporting from The Lancet medical journal in December 2019 that the coronavirus was spreading in Wuhan, China, but that the WHO ignored those reports.
Richard Horton, the Lancet’s editor, debunked the president’s claim via Twitter: “The Lancet did not publish any report in early December, 2019, about a virus spreading in Wuhan. The first reports we published were from Chinese scientists on Jan 24, 2020.”
The clapback comes just days after the Lancet published an editorial Friday blasting Trump’s role in the deterioration of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long the nation’s standard of excellence for public health. By sidelining the agency and ultimately struggling to respond appropriately to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has left Americans in great confusion and at even greater risk, the authors write.
“Punishing the agency by marginalizing and hobbling it is not the solution,” the Lancet noted. “The Administration is obsessed with magic bullets—vaccines, new medicines, or a hope that the virus will simply disappear. Only a steadfast reliance on basic public health principles, like test, trace, and isolate, will see the emergency brought to an end, and this requires an effective national public health agency.”
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The CDC has for years been weighed down by conservative political climates that have reduced the agency’s ability to provide science-based responses to public health crises. The Lancet mapped the Reagan administration’s resistance to providing HIV/AIDS funding and George W. Bush’s restrictions on reproductive health programming as precedents to Donald Trump’s anti-CDC policies.
An exchange between the administration’s coronavirus response team and the CDC earlier this month illustrated the breakdown between the federal government and the agency. During the closed door meeting, according to the Washington Post, Dr. Deborah Birx, the physician who oversees the team, voiced frustration with the CDC’s antiquated system for tracking virus data. They speculated that some statistics—such as mortality rate and case count—could have been overcounted by 25%.
“There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust,” Birx reportedly said.
Anthony S. Fauci, the task force’s top infectious disease specialist, contradicted Birx at a Senate hearing last week, saying the number of COVID-19 fatalities—more than 90,000 as of Tuesday morning—is likely being undercounted.
It wasn’t always this way. Founded at the close of World War II, the CDC trained epidemiologists to be deployed across the globe. CDC scientists helped uncover new viruses, developed testing and played a vital role in defeating smallpox. But during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the greatest health crises in a century, the CDC has been almost erased by the Trump administration as the public authority on the pandemic.
All China-based CDC staffers were recalled in July 2019, and in February, when the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases director warned of impending disruptions to everyday life, Nancy Messonier went from having a leading role to no longer appearing at White House daily coronavirus briefings. The president named his own pandemic response team instead of relying on the CDC to fulfill its traditional role. And when Trump announced the CDC’s recommendation that everyone wear masks in public, he undermined it, saying he himself would not be following the advice.
And the CDC hurt its own cause with slow response, information leaks and faulty test kits, which it publicly apologized for.
Currently, the CDC’s lengthy and detailed reopening guidelines report has been shelved by the White House, while Trump, campaigning to reopen the economy, has only okayed the release of six short points. Agency scientists were told the guidance “would never see the light of day,” according to a CDC official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Because the Trump administration chipped away at the agency’s ability to fight infectious diseases, the Lancet editorial argues it’s time for new leadership in the White House. “Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics,” the authors write.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.