The “vast majority” of the almost 550,000 coronavirus deaths in the US could have been prevented if Donald Trump’s administration had acted earlier and with greater conviction, according to one of the public health experts charged with leading the pandemic response at the time.
Dr Deborah Birx was the White House coronavirus taskforce coordinator in the Trump administration and is among six leading medical experts involved in the then government’s efforts to fight the outbreak who will assess errors, missteps and moments of success, during a CNN documentary to be broadcast on Sunday night.
Birx, who last week took a controversial new private-sector job as medical adviser to an air cleaning company in California, will point to the Trump administration’s failure to learn from or respond quickly to the first wave of infections that swept the country in early spring 2020.
“I look at it this way. The first time we have an excuse,” Birx tells CNN’s Sanjay Gupta in the programme entitled Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out.
She goes on: “There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”
Trump was criticised for downplaying the seriousness of the virus, making numerous false claims, including that its effects were no worse than flu, predicting Covid-19 would “just disappear” and referring to it in racist terms. He pressed for cities and states to reopen through last summer as a second wave pushed the death toll higher.
He also ridiculed the wearing of masks and made outlandish claims such as suggesting injecting disinfectant into the body could be a legitimate coronavirus treatment, which experts slammed at the time as dangerous.
A Columbia University study last year found 84% of deaths could have been prevented with an earlier shutdown, CNN reported.
Birx, who often praised Trump, claimed in January she had been “censored” by the White House and had considered quitting. But her decision to speak out in tonight’s documentary was criticised by other prominent pandemic experts.
“This happened on her watch,” Jonathan Reiner of George Washington University told CNN, adding that Birx had “a duty to stand up and speak up”.
Birx also recounted that after last August she said publicly that the virus was “extraordinarily widespread” and spreading in rural areas, and because of the “clarity that I brought about the epidemic” she was subject to “horrible pushback” from the White House and received aggressive phone calls from Trump.
Another doctor featured in the documentary, Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), appears to repeat Birx’s claims of censorship by the administration.
Stating he was “allowed to have opinions now”, Redfield will claim, without evidence, that he believes Covid-19 was created in a Chinese laboratory.
“If I was to guess, this virus started transmitting somewhere in September, October in Wuhan,” he said. “That’s my own feelings, and only opinion.”
The World Health Organization has called the assertion “extremely unlikely”, while Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s head of infectious diseases, also downplayed it in a White House briefing on Friday.
“Obviously, there are a number of theories. Dr Redfield was mentioning that he was giving an opinion as to a possibility, but again, there are other alternatives, others that most people hold by,” Fauci said.
Birx and Redfield are not serving in Joe Biden’s administration, while Fauci has been retained by the new administration’s White House team, as the leading infectious diseases adviser to the president.
The programme will air as the CDC reports more than 50 million Americans are now fully vaccinated and Biden targets 200m vaccinations in his first 100 days in office. The CDC, however, remains “deeply concerned” about rising infections even as vaccinations set daily records.
Fauci will tell Gupta that his push to go “all out” on pursuing a vaccine as early as January 2020 “may have been the best decision I have ever made”.