Sidelining key health agency made US 'less safe,' says ex-chief

Washington (AFP) –


The United States has become "less safe" as a result of the White House's decision to sideline the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a former director of the agency said Monday.

Tom Frieden, who ran the high-profile agency under ex-president Barack Obama, added that the country would be "much better off" if its leadership had heeded the CDC's calls to action early on in the coronavirus pandemic.

The CDC has traditionally led the government's response to epidemics but has had a relatively muted public profile during the current crisis, carrying out its last press briefing on March 9.

Speaking in a Zoom call organized by the health news site Stat, Frieden said: "I think it's crucial that we hear from CDC, and remains the best place in the world to go for information on coronavirus."

"We are less safe when we're not hearing from the CDC regularly."

President Donald Trump has instead taken center stage during the crisis, holding forth in daily briefings from the White House, though with leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci present.

Frieden said the CDC was continuing to publish research findings extensively, but suggested that the agency's top scientists were ignored when they sounded the alarm.

He noted that Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, briefed reporters on January 26 that the country needed to prepare for a possible pandemic.

A month later, she warned of "severe" disruptions to daily life.

"Think back to that January 26 quotation -- how much better off we would be if we were prepared for physical distancing, if we had begun the production of test kits and personalized protective equipment at that time," he said.

As the US hits its peak COVID-19 caseload, Frieden added his voice to experts who have cautioned against lifting lockdown restrictions too fast, saying it was crucial to "box in" the virus.

This would involve widespread testing, isolating infected people, contact tracing to establish who they had met, and 14-day quarantines for exposed people.

Much hope has been placed on serological tests that examine antibodies for signs of past coronavirus infection and possible immunity, but Frieden warned against expecting too much too soon.

"Right now, there are many tests on the market, and many of them... are junk," he said, adding that it would take time to establish which tests could be relied upon.

One thing that is almost certain, he said, was that the virus was not going to be "eradicable" and would require "new normals" to deal with "indefinitely," such as no handshakes and nobody going out with any mild respiratory symptoms.

If SARS-CoV-2 is like coronaviruses that cause the common cold, it can probably be harbored inside the mucus membranes of people's noses for weeks or even months, waiting to re-emerge and infect new people, he added.