Once again, these joint efforts saved lives. From 2014 to 2016, 28,000 people in West Africa contracted Ebola, far fewer than the 1.4 million the U.S. CDC had predicted near the beginning of the outbreak. In August 2014, 40 percent of Americans told pollsters that they expected a “large outbreak” of Ebola in the United States. Ultimately, only a single American died. On Obama’s final trip to China in 2016, the two governments agreed to jointly finance a headquarters for the African Union’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention so that the continent could better fight infectious diseases itself.
The Trump administration is now trying to prevent that headquarters from being built. That’s just one example of the wrecking ball it has taken to public-health cooperation with Beijing. In 2018, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration was “dramatically downsizing” the global “epidemic prevention activities” Obama had launched following the Ebola crisis. This year, even as the coronavirus outbreak was raging, Trump proposed cutting American funding for WHO in half.
These cuts have taken a particular toll on American initiatives in China. Since Trump took office, both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health have reduced their staff in Beijing. The National Science Foundation has shut its office in the country entirely. The sentiment inside the Trump administration, Bouey told me, is that “if you have collaborative research with Chinese scientists, you’re helping China to build their capacity, and that’s not good for the U.S., because China is a strategic competitor.”
This hard decoupling on public-health matters almost certainly undermined the U.S. government’s initial understanding of COVID-19. To be sure, Beijing responded to the outbreak with a disastrous cover-up, followed by a harsh quarantine. It repeatedly and inexcusably delayed allowing a WHO delegation into Wuhan. Nonetheless, academics who study U.S.-Chinese cooperation on public health told me that had experts from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health maintained close contact with their Chinese counterparts, those informal channels would have given the United States much better information in the virus’s early days.
“Five years earlier,” Bouey said, “CDC and NIH officials would have been on the ground in Wuhan.” Seligsohn insisted that American officials during the Bush years “would have had a better sense of whether disease was being contained.” Elanah Uretsky, a medical anthropologist at Brandeis University who focuses on China, suggested that “the cooperation on health projects between the U.S. and China that existed before the Trump administration could have helped to pick up the virus sooner.” This week, Reuters reported that among the positions the Trump administration defunded was that of a medical epidemiologist who had been embedded inside China’s CDC. An American who previously occupied that role told the news service that “if someone had been there, public-health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster.”