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Right Opinion

Federal Health Bureaucrats Unprepared for Coronavirus

Betsy McCaughey · Feb. 19, 2020

Federal health bureaucrats deserve an F grade for preparedness. Despite years of warnings about America’s overdependence on China for medicines, masks and other equipment, these officials did nothing to remedy the situation. Now, these same officials tell us we’re facing an “unprecedented public health threat” from coronavirus, now COVID-19.

It would be bad enough if we had the weapons to fight it. But we’re caught with our pants down. “It’s quite shocking to me that we have allowed this to happen,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week.

Shocking? It’s government as usual. In the past decade, congressional hearings, special commissions and thousands of pages of reports have documented the danger of relying on China for life-and-death medical supplies. It’s been all talk and no action.

So China remains the sole supplier of raw materials for most of America’s essential medicines. “What worries me the most is the shortage of antibiotics,” warns former CDC chief Julie Gerberding.

America’s entire health care system is “precariously dependent on China” for medical supplies, warns former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb. That includes drugs to treat lung and breast cancer, the active ingredient for Tamiflu to treat influenza, implantable defibrillators for heart patients and the masks, gloves and gowns health care workers need.

Expect hospitals to experience shortages in the next three months, Gottlieb predicts, whether the coronavirus spreads here or not.

No surprise, China is prioritizing its own country’s needs ahead of America’s medical supply chain. Many Chinese factories are closed down. Whatever is being produced is being redirected for local use. China is slashing medical exports.

Even so, masks are in such short supply in China that health care workers are mending torn masks with tape. Desperate doctors are appealing online for goggles and other personal protective equipment.

Over 1,700 Chinese health care workers have become infected with the virus. The head of the Wuhan hospital at the epicenter of the outbreak, neurosurgeon Dr. Liu Zhiming, died Tuesday.

Right now, the U.S. is in a wait-and-see situation. On Jan. 31, as soon as China leveled with the world about its epidemic, President Donald Trump wisely barred foreigners recently in China from entering the U.S. and imposed a 14-day quarantine on returning Americans. But an unknown number of people infected with the virus entered the U.S. before Jan. 31, and may have spread it to others. The extent of that problem will become apparent in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, the public should be demanding answers about the adequacy of the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile.

The U.S. maintains a stockpile of medical equipment to meet emergencies. Federal officials refuse to answer whether it’s adequate for a coronavirus epidemic.

But Luciana Borio, former director of medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, warned Congress last week that “we have not sufficiently protected the supply chain of essential medicines and medical equipment.” Health bureaucrats don’t have to specify which vaccines or antidotes are in the stockpile, but doctors and nurses deserve answers on whether there are enough masks, goggles and gowns to protect them on the frontlines.

The U.S. is shelling out $100 million to the World Health Organization to help fight the coronavirus in China. Ridiculous. China’s got the money to pay for itself. The U.S. is more in hock to China than any other foreign creditor. If China needs money, it can cash in some U.S. Treasury bills.

Coronavirus may peter out, but even so, it should be a red flag to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar or his successor to rectify our dependence on China for medical supplies. Trump has called for greater reliance on U.S. manufacturing. From day one, Azar should have pushed incentives for pharmaceutical companies and hospital supply manufacturers to produce more in the U.S.

The U.S. wouldn’t outsource the manufacture of fighter planes and tanks to China, a military and economic adversary. Depending on China for medical and hospital supplies is just as crazy.

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