Nine top scientists who advised Barack Obama in the White House are warning that the US has just three months to rebuild its national stockpile of emergency medical supplies or risk further drastic shortages of testing kits and protective gear should coronavirus strike again in the fall.
The dramatic warning from Obama’s former science advisers contains an implicit criticism of Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. In a seven-page missive, the group says that federal government preparations for a possible resurgence of the disease must be triggered immediately if a repeat of the “extraordinary shortage of supplies” that was seen in March and April is to be avoided.
“Preparation for a resurgence needs to be initiated now. It needs to be at a national level, in close collaboration and coordination with state and local officials,” the letter says.
The nine authors, led by John Holdren, Obama’s White House science adviser throughout his two terms in office, criticise the Trump administration for failing to act on numerous studies urging replenishment of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) in preparation for just the kind of health emergency unfolding today.
“The United States was unprepared for the supply needs of the spring 2020 Covid-19 pandemic,” the group says.
The scientists add: “There has been a persistent shortage of ventilators, testing kits, masks and other PPE [personal protective equipment] … In recent years the nation has let down its guard.”
The group of nine are among the most pre-eminent scientists in the country. In addition to Holdren, now at Harvard, they include Eric Lander of MIT and Harvard, Chris Chyba of Princeton and Susan Graham of UC Berkeley.
All nine were members of the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology assembled by Obama at the start of his presidency. Between 2009 and 2016 they co-wrote six reports for the president that touched on viral pandemics.
Though many other experts have offered advice on dealing with Covid-19, the connection between the nine and Obama sharpens their intervention. The former president is not responsible for any of the scientists’ findings, but he has been kept informed about the group’s progress since its inception.
In recent days, the already tense relationship between Obama and Trump has turned even more toxic. The former president and the current incumbent of the White House have openly come to blows.
In a series of recent statements, Obama has been searingly critical of Trump’s management of the pandemic. Last Saturday he told graduating students in an online commencement address that coronavirus had “finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing – a lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge”.
Trump hit back, accusing Obama of having been a “grossly incompetent” president.
Since the first confirmed case of coronavirus was reported in the US on 20 January, Trump has come under mounting attack for his hesitant and confused response to the pandemic. His administration took almost six weeks to begin ramping up of diagnostic testing, was resistant to using the Defense Production Act to enlist commercial corporations into manufacturing supplies, and has largely left it to states to find their own way forward.
The group of nine sees its mission as offering practical advice to a wide group of officials and politicians about how to prepare for future waves of Covid-19 in the US. The letter is being circulated to senior Trump administration officials, key members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democratic governors and mayors, Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and non-governmental opinion leaders.
In their new paper, the scientists recap how the Trump administration failed to act on Congressional advice that the stockpile should be replenished. Emergency reserves of surgical and N95 respirator masks had been depleted during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, leading to a shortfall of millions of units.
The failure of the federal government to revive the stockpile was compounded by similar failings at state level, the authors say.
The group also points out that in April 2020 the Trump administration dramatically downgraded the remit of the national stockpile. Until then, it was billed as the “nation’s largest supply of life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency” with “enough supplies to respond to multiple large-scale emergencies simultaneously”.
In April that wording was drastically rewritten. Its newly enervated purpose was to “supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies” and to provide a “short-term stopgap buffer”.
Looking to the future, the missive calls for a quick-start 30-day plan that would see the rebuilding of the stockpile with the aid of $30bn from Congress. Over the next five years there would be regular reviews to ensure that once back up at scale the supplies are sustained into the future.
The scientists see their paper as the first in a series. Over the next couple of months they plan to put out advice on contact tracing, serology and antibody tests, and data management.
In what promises to be their most controversial move, the nine are also considering chronicling the advice they produced under Obama relating to pandemics. Part of that work would be to explore what happened to the recommendations, which might make uncomfortable reading for Trump and his inner circle.