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“We did the worst job in the world”: Lawrence Wright on America’s botched Covid-19 response

The three moments that doomed the US effort to combat the coronavirus.

Trump, in a navy blue suit and light blue tie, speaks at a microphone, gesturing with one hand, as Fauci stands beside him, wearing a white mask, gray suit, and dark red tie.
Dr. Anthony Fauci looks on as then-President Donald Trump delivers remarks about coronavirus vaccine development at the White House in May.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

February 6 marks the anniversary of the first American death from the coronavirus.

Since then, well over 400,000 Americans have died from complications related to Covid-19. It’s likely many more will die before we’re finally over the hump. It goes without saying that no matter who was in charge last year, this pandemic would have killed lots of people. But it’s also true that bad leadership costs many lives, and we’ll never know for sure how many could have been spared.

The story of America’s failure is long and complicated. When the full history is finally written, the depth of those failures will likely shock even those of us who have followed it closely in real time.

For now, the closest thing we have to a comprehensive account of America’s botched response to the coronavirus is Lawrence Wright’s sweeping story in the New Yorker. Published in December, just a few days before the year ended, the story documents what happened and when, and who was responsible — a staggering piece of reporting that goes as deep as anything written thus far.

Wright highlights three moments at which America could’ve have gotten things right but, for various reasons, didn’t. It’s as depressing as it is illuminating. I reached out to Wright, who also wrote The End of October, a 2020 novel about a pandemic originating in Asia (seriously), to talk about those three pivotal moments.

Beyond diagnosing what went wrong, I asked Wright what the federal government could have done differently and if he thinks a competent administration with a serious plan might’ve saved hundreds of thousands of lives. He explained what happened in exquisite detail, and I have to say, it’s maddening. This was indeed a tragedy and, as Wright suggests, one of the greatest failures in the history of American governance.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You say there are three moments in which America’s Covid-19 response might have gone in a very different direction. Walk me through the first moment, in which China basically attempts to hide the scale of the pandemic in those early days.

Lawrence Wright

Right, the first moment occurs when Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke to George Fu Gao, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on January 3, 2020. This was already a fraught moment. Gao had really just started to discover the scale of the thing, and part of the dilemma was that in China people are afraid to report things up the chain. He was basically reading about what was happening on social media.

The tragic part about this moment is that Gao could not invite the American CDC team to come to China and help investigate the outbreak, and that set us back enormously. Redfield is sure that, had the CDC team been able to visit China at that point, we would’ve discovered that there was asymptomatic transmission, something we didn’t know at that point. This was already something that was being talked about in medical circles in China. It wouldn’t have been a secret. But the US, and really the rest of the world, did not figure this out until late February or early March. And had they known that, the strategy for dealing with this outbreak would have been entirely different.

Sean Illing

Can the CDC be faulted for this, or is there little they could’ve done in the face of China’s intransigence?

Lawrence Wright

No, the CDC alone could not have done much. But the American government could have made it a much bigger issue, and we simply didn’t do it. People sat back and took the Chinese at their word. And look, China’s behavior at the beginning of this outbreak is nefarious. But the countries that knew China well — for instance, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan — they took precautions because they didn’t believe the Chinese assurances. And unfortunately, we didn’t do that. That was the first setback in our response and what I’d call strike one.

Sean Illing

Did you get any good answers as to why we sat back? It can’t be as simple as naiveté, can it? Or was the US government just scared to death of antagonizing China?

Lawrence Wright

All of those things were at play. There was absolutely a fear of antagonizing China. A great example of that is that we wanted to get our diplomats and businesspeople out of Wuhan, and China threw a fit. There was a “How dare you!” quality to their reaction. And in order to placate the Chinese, we sent these 747s over that we were going to use to pick up our citizens, and we stuffed it full of PPE gear, something like 18 tons of it. And we did it purely to mollify the Chinese.

Atlas, silver-haired, in a blue suit and burgundy tie, speaks into a microphone at a podium outdoors.
White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas speaks about Covid-19 testing at the White House on September 28, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Tell me about the second moment.

Lawrence Wright

The second one was the fumble on the testing. The fault lies principally with CDC. But also, the FDA plays a role in this tragedy. The CDC was always the gold standard for public health agencies around the world. And one of the things they do is, they create tests for diseases. And they’ve been very good at that in the past. And of course, they were under terrific pressure in this moment and that in turn led to them taking some shortcuts.

So there are typically two main elements in a normal test kit, or two parts to the test. One is the primers and probes, as they call them, which detect the presence of viral antibodies. And the other is a piece of RNA that represents the virus. And these two things go together to make a test kit. Normally, you have them manufactured in separate facilities because it contaminates if you have them both in the same house. So the CDC took a shortcut. And they sent out the test kits knowing that it failed their own internal quality check. The fail rate was around 30 percent. But they sent out the kits anyway and they were totally unreliable.

Sean Illing

Wait, how the hell does that happen?

Lawrence Wright

The CDC didn’t know if it was a design problem or a manufacturing problem. They couldn’t figure it out. So the FDA sent this guy, Timothy Stenzel, down to Atlanta, the CDC headquarters. And it was immediately apparent what had happened. The lab was contaminated. They were processing samples of the test in the same room where they were making the test. So live virus samples were in the same room. And a mistake like that, you just can’t imagine the Centers for Disease Control doing that.

But there was another thing going on. There were three elements in the primers and probes, numbered one, two, and three. Numbers one and two detected against the SARS-CoV-2 and number three detected any coronavirus, in case it mutated. That was the element that failed. The test worked, except for that third element. All they had to do was to eliminate that third element and you would have a valid test. And the FDA refused to bend on this authorization, for weeks. We lost all of February because of the incompetence and inertia on the part of the CDC and FDA.

Sean Illing

You say we “lost all of February,” but what does that mean exactly? Can we even begin to speculate how many lives this dithering and incompetence cost?

Lawrence Wright

Well, there are models that show, at every step along the way, had the Chinese been more forthcoming earlier, had the Chinese shut down Wuhan earlier, had we gotten the test out sooner, it would have made an enormous difference in terms of the spread of the virus and the number of lives lost. We can’t say for sure, but had these things gone differently, we would be dealing with a fraction of what we’re facing now.

Sean Illing

Did anyone at the CDC or the FDA explain to you why in the world they sent out test kits knowing they were faulty?

Lawrence Wright

I asked Redfield about it and he said someone violated protocol. And that’s about it. They have an internal examination. No one’s really been held accountable. No one’s been fired. No one’s been fingered. But it’s pretty clear that it happened in the lab of Stephen Lindstrom, who was overseeing the test. And so far, there’s been no accountability for the failure in CDC.

I have to say that there’s been no real accountability at the FDA either. Because the FDA could have been responsive to the fact that the test obviously worked if you removed this third element. And they eventually did get it right, but they could have done it weeks earlier and, as I said, the consequences of this delay were enormous.

Sean Illing

There’s a crucial moment, on January 23, when a physician (Dr. Rick Bright) from HHS (Health and Human Services) tells various Trump officials, including Secretary Alex Azar, that the “virus might already be here,” and you write that the Trump people “seemed determined to ignore” the news. Does that mean they literally ignored it or does it mean they kept searching for “experts” to tell them what they wanted to hear?

Lawrence Wright

Both of those things were going on. They didn’t want to hear the news. They didn’t want to hear any bad news. But also there was this longing for someone to come along and say, “This is not a problem. It’s going away. And if you do nothing, we’ll be fine.” And Scott Atlas served that purpose.

Sean Illing

Wait, who is Scott Atlas?

Lawrence Wright

Scott Atlas is a neuroradiologist from Stanford who had been on Fox News a lot, saying that we needed to open up the schools, which is a legitimate debate. But he was advocating for “herd immunity,” which is this idea that when enough people have been either vaccinated or infected, the population at large is no longer susceptible to the spread of the disease. The main concept of herd immunity is, let people get sick. We don’t have the vaccine yet. If people get sick, then that will begin to choke off the spread.

The great appeal for the Trump administration was that you can achieve herd immunity by doing nothing. And that became the unspoken policy.

Trump, in a black suit and blue-striped tie, takes a mask off, standing with a black balcony railing in front of him and several US flags flanking him.
President Donald Trump removes his protective mask on the Truman Balcony of the White House on October 5, 2020.
Ken Cedeno/Polaris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Tell me about the third moment.

Lawrence Wright

This is, in my opinion, the saddest moment of all. Because in strike one and strike two, the rate of infection in the United States was still seemingly small. We didn’t have the tests, so we didn’t really know. But the sense of threat wasn’t as great. But when March rolls in and then you have New York City going into this horrible first wave, and the danger we’re facing is clear.

And all through February and March, Matt Pottinger, the deputy NSC (National Security Council) adviser, had been advocating for masks. And he was the only one in the White House who wore one. Finally in, I think it was April 3, the CDC swung around and recommended mask wearing in public after initially saying masks weren’t necessary.

If you look back at public health statements about masks, Dr. Fauci said that it wasn’t important for Americans to be wearing masks. And he said it at a time when the rate of infection seemed to be low. The surgeon general said, “Seriously, people. Stop buying masks. They won’t protect you.” And this is about the time they’re saying, “We need to have enough masks for hospitals.” So there was this disconnect. I mean, if they’re not effective, why did we need them in hospitals? It made no sense.

But finally, it becomes clear that masks are effective. Studies have shown it. The president is cajoled into making the statement. And he says, “It’s voluntary. I won’t be doing it. But some people say it works. But it’s up to you. It’s voluntary. I’m not going to do it.” And at that moment, we swung at strike three. Because Trump politicized the wearing of masks at a moment when he could have set an example. And that’s the last chance we had. Without masks, the country was engulfed in this contagion. And the responsibility for so many lives lies in the hands of the president of the United States in that moment.

Sean Illing

Give me the most charitable defense of the CDC on this one. What were they thinking when they said masks were unnecessary? Why not recommend masks, since there seem to be almost no downsides?

Lawrence Wright

It’s really weird, I have to say. Because on the one hand, you want people in hospitals to wear a mask when there’s a possibility of sharing germs. It’s always been true. We’ve known this for at least a century.

Sean Illing

Public health officials like Dr. Fauci have been lionized, partly because of the contrast with Trump, but they made big mistakes in the early days, especially on the mask front. Do you think history will judge them more harshly?

Lawrence Wright

They’re scientists. And at the beginning, they were relying on conventional scientific wisdom, which is, “This is a respiratory disease, it’s a coronavirus. SARS spread symptomatically, so it’s probably like SARS. And it’s probably like flu.” And they were wrong. What they didn’t know is it spread asymptomatically. And in that way, it’s more like polio. And so, their perception of it was wrong at the beginning. Eventually, they learned more about the disease and their message changed.

But unfortunately, it’s hard to change a message like that. Once you’ve made the statement that masks are not effective, you can’t just walk it back. Undoing that kind of communication is very difficult and we paid a big price for it.

Sean Illing

I’m making a deliberate effort to avoid overly simplistic narratives, so I want to ask this as clearly as possible: How much of America’s botched response falls on Donald Trump and the incompetent administration he assembled?

Lawrence Wright

America was going to face an enormous challenge under any circumstances. We have to understand that. A lot of people were going to get sick and a lot of people were going to die. But it’s also true that it didn’t have to be at the scale that we endured.

You can look at the various states and how they reacted to the virus and how the outcomes were different. And you can compare similar states; Kentucky and Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, Vermont and South Dakota. In many respects, these were similar states with similar demographics. In one case, the governor imposes strict lockdowns, mask wearing, and so on. In another case, the tap is open. One public health official said, “If the country had behaved like the state of Vermont, we would have 200,000 fewer deaths.” Well, that’s almost half of what we’re talking about. More responsible leadership could have made an immense difference in the suffering and the death that America has endured.

Sean Illing

One of the most infuriating parts of this whole account — and there are many — isn’t that Trump is incompetent or even malicious, it’s that he really doesn’t seem to give a shit. Every person you quote who was anywhere near him, and the various accounts of his interactions with governors and other officials, shows a man whose moral indifference strikes me as psychotic. As someone you quote in the piece said, “It’s all reality TV to him.”

Lawrence Wright

Well, I think that there’s an absence of compassion that marked the Trump administration. And what was very striking to me, the night before the inauguration of Joe Biden, he had a memorial to the 400,000 Americans who died. That one moment of reaching out and consoling the families of people who we’ve lost had been absent during that entire year. And when that happened, I just thought, “This is what we’ve been needing.” Just someone who recognized the toll that it’s taken on Americans. But up until that moment, it hadn’t happened.

Sean Illing

I don’t want to ask you to tell people how they should feel about this tragedy, so I’ll ask you how you feel about it: Is this the greatest and most consequential failure in the history of American governance?

Lawrence Wright

I wrote about 9/11 in The Looming Tower and I described the intelligence failure. Well, this was an intelligence failure. The American intelligence community had no idea about the catastrophic consequences that were about to enshroud our country. And it was a public health failure. Because we didn’t understand the nature of the virus, we fumbled in our efforts to create a test for it.

It’s so striking to me that this is one of those things where you’d think it would unify the country. We’re all in this together. And it’s not a partisan issue. We’re under siege. But instead, the culture became more divided. And it was a political failure. We had opportunities for leadership and we didn’t get it. It was an incredible failure all the way down.

Again, this was going to be bad no matter what happened, but it didn’t have to be this bad. If we had only done as good a job as Vietnam or South Korea, we could’ve saved tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of American lives. And we were supposed to be the country best equipped to deal with the pandemic. We had better resources than any country on earth. And that just makes the failure all the more catastrophic because we could have done a good job. And we did the worst job in the world.