In July, just months before the coronavirus pandemic began, the Trump administration eliminated an American public health position in Beijing intended to help detect disease outbreaks in China.
An American medical epidemiologist is placed in a liaison position in China’s disease control agency, according to four sources with knowledge of the issue. The first cases of the new coronavirus may have emerged as early as November, and as cases exploded, the Trump administration in February chastised China for censoring information about the outbreak and keeping U.S. experts from entering the country to help.
“It was heartbreaking to watch… If someone had been there, public health officials and governments across the world could have moved much faster.” said Bao-Ping Zhu, an American who served in that role, which was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2007 and 2011.
Zhu and the other sources said the American expert, Dr. Linda Quick, was a trainer of Chinese field epidemiologists who were deployed to the epicenter of outbreaks to help track, investigate and contain diseases.
As an American CDC employee, they said, Quick was in an ideal position to be the eyes and ears on the ground for the United States and other countries on the coronavirus outbreak and might have alerted them to the growing threat weeks earlier.
No other foreign disease experts were embedded to lead the program after Quick left in July, according to the sources. Zhu said an embedded expert can often get word of outbreaks early, after forming close relationships with Chinese counterparts.