Public Health vs. Politics


Source: Democracy Now!

As the U.S. coronavirus death toll passes 155,000, there is still no national testing program, with widespread shortages and delays hampering efforts to contain the pandemic. This continues months after President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner launched a White House task force with the goal of establishing a national testing plan. We speak to investigative reporter Katherine Eban, whose explosive Vanity Fair report chronicles Kushner’s fumbling efforts and the sudden decision to abandon the project on political grounds. “The participants expected that at any moment in early April, the plan would be announced,” says Eban. “It vanished into thin air.”

AMY GOODMAN: As the national coronavirus death toll surpasses 156,000 — the highest by far in the world, the U.S. making up more than a quarter of global deaths — on Monday, President Trump attacked top White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Deborah Birx for saying that the U.S. is in a new phase as the virus spreads out of control.

DR. DEBORAH BIRX: What we’re seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread. It’s into the rural as equal urban areas. And to everybody who lives in a rural area, you are not immune or protected from this virus.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump responded Monday, tweeting, “So Crazy Nancy Pelosi said horrible things about Dr. Deborah Birx, going after her because she was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combatting the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics. In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!” he said. Dr. Anthony Fauci defended Dr. Birx, saying community spread is “insidious.” Despite this, Trump told Axios’s Jonathan Swan the coronavirus is under control.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Under the circumstances —

JONATHAN SWAN: It’s giving them a false sense of security.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: — right now I think it’s under control. I’ll tell you what.

JONATHAN SWAN: How? A thousand Americans are dying a day.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They are dying, that’s true. And you have — it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, the coronavirus has spread all over the United States. More than five months into the crisis, there continue to be critical testing shortages and delays. How did we get here?

We turn now to a stunning new exposé in Vanity Fair that reveals how the Trump administration ended up with no national testing plan despite a months-long effort spearheaded by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

In an explosive piece headlined “How Jared Kushner’s Secret Testing Plan ‘Went Poof Into Thin Air,’” reporter Katherine Eban writes Jared Kushner was pursuing a national testing plan with the help of handful of wealthy business owners, when the White House decided it was not necessary because COVID-19 had, quote, “hit blue states hardest.” Eban writes, quote, “This summer has illustrated in devastating detail the human and economic cost of not launching a system of national testing, which most every other industrialized nation has done,” Eban writes.

She joins us now from Truro, Massachusetts. She’s author of Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom and Dangerous Doses: A True Story of Cops, Counterfeiters, and the Contamination of America’s Drug Supply.

Katherine, welcome back to Democracy Now!

KATHERINE EBAN: Thanks. It’s great to join you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you lay out what you learned about why we are at this point in this country, where people around the country are waiting hours and hours and hours for their tests, and then they wait days, if not weeks, for the results, rendering them virtually ineffective? Go back to what this White House was doing in the early months.

KATHERINE EBAN: So, starting in March, it was very clear to every public health expert that we needed a nationally organized diagnostic testing plan, one that could surge supplies, allocate test kits, allocate precious laboratory capacity. And Jared Kushner, inside the White House, gathered a group of his associates, including his college roommate, some Morgan Stanley bankers, a sort of brain trust. They began reaching out to billionaires who did not have public health experience per se. But then they brought in a group of diagnostic testing experts from the industry.

Working night and day, in secret, on the encrypted WhatsApp platform, they hammered out a national testing plan that essentially resembled what every other advanced nation has established.And the participants in the plan — and we obtained the plan, I should say. The participants expected that at any moment in early April, the plan would be announced. It vanished into thin air, as one participant described it.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? And what was the reason?

KATHERINE EBAN: So, the plan at that moment hit shifting sentiment at the White House. The view at that point in early April, in part led by predictions by Dr. Deborah Birx, is that the virus was on its way out, it was subsiding. There was a view that a national testing plan would be an enormous effort with a lot of political liability.

But there was an additional calculation, which was expressed from one member of Kushner’s team to someone that we interviewed, which is that this was mostly affecting blue states. And if a political argument was needed, they could simply blame those Democratic governors for the spread.

And so the national testing plan was abandoned. And on April 27th, Trump stepped to the podium in the Rose Garden and announced the administration plan, which bore no resemblance to the one hammered out by the group. And this was a plan that essentially kicked the problem to the states. The states would individually be responsible for getting test kits, getting lab capacity.

And that really has led to what we have seen over this terrible summer: miles-long lines of cars in Texas and Arizona heat waiting on line to get tests, people waiting seven-plus days to get results, which essentially renders the tests useless. And that’s where we are. You know, we cannot monitor where this virus is at point, because we don’t have enough testing. You cannot fight what you don’t see. And that is the predicament we are currently in.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Katherine Eban, what about the reaction of the medical experts in the federal government to this, first of all, to the Kushner team itself, and then to the fact that the president didn’t even implement the plan of that team?

KATHERINE EBAN: Well, you know, public health experts have known all along that a national testing plan was absolutely required. But my understanding is that this Jared Kushner team did not really work with the public health agencies. As far as I can tell from my reporting, his plan, which we obtained, never trickled down to the agencies and the decision-makers within HHS and other entities. Now, of course, the White House has come out and denied this and denied our report. But, you know, as one participant said to us, “We were working in a bubble. You know, we were in a bubble, they were in a bubble, and the bubbles never overlapped.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this whole issue of kicking the testing situation down to the states? You quote a Dr. Pellini saying that the diagnostic testing industry is a, quote, “loosely constructed web” and that COVID-19 is, in essence, “a stage five hurricane.” How is this loosely connected web going to be able to deal with the current crisis that we have?

KATHERINE EBAN: It’s a great question. The answer is, it’s not. You know, as someone described it to me, it’s like the early 20th century and the power grids, right? And every city and location had its own power grid, and you couldn’t surge power from one grid to another, right? So, Quest Diagnostics’ lab capacity only belongs to Quest. And LabCorp’s capacity only belongs to LabCorp. And Quest Diagnostics came out in July and announced that the median time to get results was seven days, because they were so overrun.

Now, the testing plan that was worked out by Kushner’s team would have solved that problem, because one of the things it called for was allowing any lab with capacity to test any sample, right? And you would have had an organized system of sending samples to labs that had capacity.

You know, it’s just like when you go to a supermarket, or in the old days, before coronavirus, when we all shopped at crowded supermarkets, and there were people who guided shoppers to checkout lines that had space. That is essentially what was required here. I mean, as one person we interviewed said, this is not rocket science. This is just like creating UPS for an industry. You know, you have to connect these dots. And that was never done.

AMY GOODMAN: Confusing here, Katherine Eban, is that President Trump wants to open the economy, and he is demanding that kids be able to go to school all over the country. Of course, his son, his school is not open. He doesn’t talk about that very much. But in order to do those things, in order to have a rational plan where everyone doesn’t come down with COVID, you need the tests. So it goes against his own interests.

KATHERINE EBAN: Well, that’s right. I mean, it’s stunningly shortsighted. So, the Rockefeller Foundation, I described their effort in the piece. They saw this absolute absence of a plan, and they stepped forward with a very detailed plan, which they’re now trying to implement, which would surge up testing to 30 million tests a week, which is what they say we need in order to reopen safely, right? So, kids who are going to school, workers who are returning back, how do you do any of that if you can’t quickly identify who is infected? So, without a national plan, the only thing that is left for you to do is to shut down the economy again, which is a really blunt instrument.

So, you know, President Trump says he wants to reopen the economy, he wants to reopen schools. But, literally, the only way to do that, according to the Rockefeller Foundation and other experts, is to have this widespread system of testing, which we currently lack.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Katherine, your piece in Vanity Fair starts out with a delivery of a 1 million Chinese-made diagnostic tests in March, and with a strange invoice for 3.5 million tests for $52 million, and there’s just a note that says “WH.” Could you talk about that?

KATHERINE EBAN: Yeah. So, this is actually where my reporting for this piece began, which is I obtained this very strange invoice. It’s from a company, Cogna Technology Solutions, which misspells its name on the invoice. They’re a subsidiary of Group 42, which is an artificial intelligence company that has close ties to the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates. The invoice is for 52 million diagnostic — excuse me, $52 million worth of diagnostic tests. But what was so strange about this invoice is it lists a client name, which was just two initials, “WH.” And that was the White House.

And as I further reported it, the tests got delivered to the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. So, this was first 1 million tests delivered, then 2.5 million more delivered. And when they were tested in a government lab, it turned out that they were contaminated and useless. So, as the FDA said to me, they were shipped from the Middle East. The reagents have to be kept cold.

And so, you know, this was, as I understand it now, an early effort, overseen by Jared Kushner’s task force, to ramp up diagnostic testing. I mean, I think you’ll remember — I think it was March 6th — Donald Trump goes to the CDC, and he said, rather infamously now, you know, “The tests are beautiful. Anyone who wants a test gets a test.” That was completely untrue. And so, behind the scenes, his son-in-law and this team are trying to ramp up diagnostic tests and access to tests, but the tests that they seem to have procured didn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, for example, Phoenix and what happened, what the mayor of Phoenix, Mayor Gallego, said? And then also talk about another country, like South Korea, an example of what can work.

KATHERINE EBAN: Yeah. I mean, this is really two different universes. So, in Arizona, the mayor of Phoenix, Kate Gallego, goes to FEMA in April and says, “We need assistance and help to ramp up diagnostic testing. We need money. We need organization.” And they say to her — because at this point now the decision has been made to shift the responsibility to the states, they say, “Well, you’re not really qualified to get our assistance because your case count is low.” And behind the scenes, people who work for her pointed out, in emails I obtained, “The reason our case counts are low is because we don’t have access to tests. Right? The tests that we need would show that our case counts aren’t low.” That was ignored.

Fast-forward to June. You know, Arizona was the first state — the last state to close its economy and the first state to reopen, with really no provisions for a phased reopening. Their case counts start skyrocketing in June. The mayor described to me, she lives near one of these drive-thru testing sites, and, literally, she’s seeing her neighbors waiting in miles-long lines of cars in heat over 100 degrees. People who can’t breathe, are struggling to breathe, are waiting for tests. And when they finally are able to get tests, Gallego’s own staff had to wait two weeks to get back test results. So, what that means is those tests are essentially useless, right? I mean, it’s not just getting a test. It’s how quickly you get back the results and what you do with those results. So —

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Jared Kushner himself, speaking on Fox & Friends two days after President Trump’s news conference in late April. He was asked about testing.

JARED KUSHNER: Everyone’s talking about testing. And I have to say that the work that’s been done over the last 60 days on testing has been absolutely extraordinary. We’re at about 5.8 million tests now performed, by far the most in the world, and you’re going to see that number continue to accelerate. We’re starting another round of calls with all the governors today to ask them what additional supplies they need, what’s their two-month plan, what’s their six-month plan. And right now we’ve fulfilled all the orders that the governors have. They have excess capacity in their states. Yesterday Governor DeSantis was saying that he has more testing capacity than he has demand for the tests.

And so, we’re really doing quite well with that. And I always find that we see the leading indicators, and often the media sees the lagging indicators. But the leading indicators are testing — are extraordinarily positive, and I’m very confident that we have all the testing we need to start opening the country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Jared Kushner speaking in April. Of course, Florida went into free fall after that, when it came to the numbers of deaths and infections. So, then, contrast this — I mean, you have Harvard University saying there should be 20 million tests a day being done in this country to even begin to deal with this community spread throughout the country — with South Korea.

KATHERINE EBAN: Yeah. So, I mean, the whole idea of preparedness is you prepare before you have a problem. Then, if you don’t need what you prepared for, that’s wonderful, but if things get bad, you are prepared.

So that’s what South Korea did. Before they had rising case counts, they set up a whole system of not just drive-thru testing sites, but walk-thru testing sites. They’re sort of phone booth testing sites with plexiglass barriers. And that has two effects. It preserves PPE, protective equipment, because if staff are protected, they don’t have to wear as much of it. It preserves their energy, because it’s very hard to be wearing that while you’re testing. So, people can get tested. Then, they get the results back within 24 hours. So, that is timely information that you can act on. Further, when they get a positive test, their contacts are traced, and they’re put in supportive isolation, which means food is brought to them. They’re able to quarantine with support. So, if you contrast that with the miles-long lines of cars, you know, waiting for tests, it’s really stunning.

And just to say one more thing about that clip you played from Jared Kushner, you know, I’m struck by what he said about Texas, how there’s way more supply than there is demand. I mean, they were really gambling here, you know? They were really banking on this idea that you would not have spread from blue states to red states, which is an incredibly dumb gamble when you consider that this was a virus that crossed oceans, you know.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Katherine, I wanted to ask you about the racial and class breakdown in even this testing crisis. I mean, we have not only people in the White House being tested almost on a daily basis; we now have the spectacle — and to me, I consider it outrageous — that Major League Baseball is testing its players constantly to make sure that the teams can stay on the field, and yet so many Americans don’t have access, not only to a test right away, but, most especially, as you’re mentioning, to the results.

KATHERINE EBAN: You know, you’re absolutely right. I mean, they’re demanding — President Trump is demanding reopenings of schools and businesses, and yet there is this incredible discrepancy. So, you know, in my reporting of the Rockefeller Foundation’s plan, I sort of sat in on some of their deliberations. This was a huge question about school reopenings. You know, you have private schools that can afford to stand up a system of testing. They have nurses. Then you have impoverished public school systems where they can’t even afford a school nurse. So, how are they going to manage this? You know, they’re not getting help with testing. They don’t have access to anything. So there is this remarkable discrepancy which is at the heart of it, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Katherine Eban, you’re the author of Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom. Talk about your concerns about drug shortages, regulations, quality control, and just overall in the midst of this pandemic.

KATHERINE EBAN: Yeah. So, the book exposes widespread fraud in overseas manufacturing plants that make the bulk of our low-cost generics. You know, many, many people viewed, with concern, that this was a national security crisis in the making, because we are dependent on Chinese active ingredients, finished doses from India. Once the pandemic hit, we were literally flying blind, right? The FDA can no longer go overseas to inspect those plants. The FDA was also basically eroding its own safeguards by accepting pharmaceutical products from plants they had never inspected. Suddenly, India is saying, you know, “We’re going to ban the export of 26 essential drugs,” right? So we’re in shortage. We need all kinds of specialized pharmaceuticals in order to ventilate patients. So we’ve seen, you know, increased shortages. So, what I wrote about in that book is, really, coronavirus has accelerated all these issues.

 

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