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Could the USAID Predict program, which ended under Trump, have prevented the COVID-19 outbreak?

4 min read

As snarky as I like to get vis-à-vis the ocher abomination, I really can’t say I know the answer to this.

But now that The New York Times appears to have temporarily removed its paywall, everyone should read this story, which the paper published in October 2019, long before the novel coronavirus started tearing the world as we know it to shreds.

Of course, Trump has repeatedly said that no one could have predicted the kind of pandemic that’s currently devastating lives and livelihoods. Yesterday’s Times story on the government’s 2019 “Crimson Contagion” exercise put the lie to those statements.

But an even more jarring series of revelations is contained in the paper’s 2019 report, titled “Scientists Were Hunting for the Next Ebola. Now the U.S. Has Cut Off Their Funding.” The story details the shuttering of USAID’s Predict program, which was designed to find and identify zoonotic diseases (such as COVID-19) around the world.

Indeed, some of these excerpts seem eerily prescient in light of current headlines:

In a move that worries many public health experts, the federal government is quietly shutting down a surveillance program for dangerous animal viruses that someday may infect humans.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that a new animal disease that can also infect humans is discovered every four months. Ending the program, experts fear, will leave the world more vulnerable to lethal pathogens like Ebola and MERS that emerge from unexpected places, such as bat-filled trees, gorilla carcasses and camel barns.

The program, known as Predict and run by the United States Agency for International Development, was inspired by the 2005 H5N1 bird flu scare. Launched 10 years ago, the project has cost about $207 million.

So that sounds pretty important, right? Well, not important enough for people who want to cut costs and shift priorities to things like border walls and plutocrat-friendly tax cuts.

Congress, along with the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, were “enormously supportive,” said Dr. [Dennis] Carroll, [former director of USAID’s emerging threats division], who is now a fellow at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

“But things got complicated in the last two years, and by January, Predict was essentially collapsed into hibernation.”

Ouch.

There’s a lot more, and you really should read the whole thing.

Again, blaming Donald Trump for a virus’ emergence is a bit much even for someone like me who thinks Trump has made the world worse in more ways than anyone could have ever imagined. That said, we clearly didn’t put our best foot forward in preventing and addressing what has now become a horrific shitshow.

Maybe Predict could have contributed to the containment COVID-19, or maybe it could have given health officials a head start on developing an effective response. I really don’t know enough about these things to say with any degree of confidence.

I’ll just leave you with this:

The goal of Predict was to speed up and organize the previously haphazard hunt for zoonotic diseases — those that may jump from animals to humans. In recent years, scientists have discovered many lethal viruses lurking in wild and domestic animals.

Allowing Predict to end “is really unfortunate, and the opposite of what we’d like to see happening,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway and former World Health Organization director-general.

She was co-chair of a panel that in September issued a report detailing the world’s failure to prepare for pandemics. “Americans need to understand how much their health security depends on that of other countries, often countries that have no capacity to do this themselves,” Dr. Brundtland said.

Of course, even if Predict would have been useless against the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s clear we need to redouble our efforts when it comes to researching and containing deadly pathogens. Otherwise, what the hell is government even for?

The first step, though, is 86ing the current anti-science administration.

Is Trump still chafing your arse-cheeks? Then Dear Fcking Lunatic: 101 Obscenely Rude Letters to Donald Trump and its boffo sequels Dear Prsident A**clown: 101 More Rude Letters to Donald Trump and Dear F*cking Moron: 101 More Letters to Donald Trump by Aldous J. Pennyfarthing are the pick-me-up you need! Reviewers have called these books “hysterically funny,” “cathartic,” and “laugh-out-loud” comic relief. And they’re way, way cheaper than therapy.

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