The Plague Year

The Plague Year

The mistakes and the struggles behind America’s coronavirus tragedy

There are three moments in the yearlong catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic when events might have turned out differently. The first occurred on January 3, 2020, when Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke with George Fu Gao, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was modelled on the American institution. Redfield had just received a report about an unexplained respiratory virus emerging in the city of Wuhan.

The field of public health had long been haunted by the prospect of a widespread respiratory-illness outbreak like the 1918 influenza pandemic, so Redfield was concerned. Gao, when pressed, assured him that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. At the time, the theory was that each case had arisen from animals in a “wet” market where exotic game was sold. When Redfield learned that, among twenty-seven reported cases, there were several family clusters, he observed that it was unlikely that each person had been infected, simultaneously, by a caged civet cat or a raccoon dog. He offered to send a C.D.C. team to Wuhan to investigate, but Gao said that he wasn’t authorized to accept such assistance. Redfield made a formal request to the Chinese government and assembled two dozen specialists, but no invitation arrived. A few days later, in another conversation with Redfield, Gao started to cry and said, “I think we’re too late.”