Trump says he’d disband the pandemic preparedness office—again

By Erik English | May 3, 2024

Former president Donald Trump at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour, Public Domain)

In a recent interview with TIME magazine, Donald Trump said that if reelected, he would disband the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy (OPPR), a permanent office of the executive branch established by Congress in 2022. The Biden campaign responded quickly to point out that Trump’s failed pandemic response was why the OPPR was created to begin with.

In his interview with TIME, Trump described the office as “just a way of giving out pork.” He explained, “And, yeah, I probably would [disband it], because I think we’ve learned a lot and we can mobilize, you know, we can mobilize. A lot of the things that you do and a lot of the equipment that you buy is obsolete when you get hit with something. And as far as medicines, you know, these medicines are very different depending on what strains, depending on what type of flu or virus it may be. You know, things change so much. So, yeah, I think I would.”

The pledge to act quickly in response to a public health emergency stands in sharp contrast to the actions of the Trump administration while in office. Before declaring a pandemic on March 17, 2020, Donald Trump repeatedly undermined the seriousness of the disease, saying on January 22nd that “It’s just one person coming from China.” On February 10th, he implied that it would go away with the heat in April. “It’s going to disappear,” he said on February 27th. On March 10th, just days before declaring a pandemic, Trump urged everyone to “Just stay calm. It will go away.”

Recognizing the need for a speedier response to public health emergencies, OPPR was created to bolster the “whole-of-government” approach to addressing health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. The current head of OPPR, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, recently appeared before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic to confirm this goal to the chairman, Brad Wenstrup. Friedrichs admitted that the newly created office had not yet been tested and that its “success will be judged by what happens in the next pandemic.”

The irony of public health interventions is that, if successful, they often look like overreactions. The absence of a public health emergency can’t always be seen as a successful intervention, but the occurrence of an emergency can be seen as a failure.

In 2018, the Trump administration disbanded the previous pandemic response unit housed within the National Security Council (NSC), the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. The move has been criticized for slowing the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bulletin reported in the early days of the pandemic that the uncoordinated response to the virus had left “state and local officials, the media, and citizens at large” to fend for themselves and try to find the best information they could amid a morass of fear and misinformation. Beth Cameron, the former director of the directorate, wrote in 2020 that the absence of the pandemic response team significantly slowed the government’s ability to respond: “When this new coronavirus emerged, there was no clear White House-led structure to oversee our response, and we lost valuable time.” In a public health emergency, speed is paramount.

The Obama administration established the directorate in 2016 in the aftermath of the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Ebola is endemic to Central Africa, so its emergence in the small West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in 2014 was particularly dangerous because there was no health infrastructure to handle the spread.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was slow to respond and admitted that its response to the outbreak was flawed. With cases of Ebola beginning to appear in the US, the Obama administration ultimately decided to send troops into Liberia to control the outbreak and appointed Ron Klain as the “Ebola response coordinator.” He’s said of his work on Ebola that, while there were plenty of medical experts who could advise on the emergency, the real need was for someone who could manage the 14 different government agencies involved in the response.

By February 2015, there were no US cases of Ebola, and the Ebola treatment units in Liberia were empty. However, the sluggish response time bore terrible costs. According to a Congressional Research Service report from 2014, between 1976 and 2012 there were 1,590 deaths from Ebola worldwide—all of them in Central and East Africa. By the end of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, more than 11,000 people had died across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

The creation of the directorate was a recognition of the need for a centralized authority to coordinate the efforts of multiple federal agencies and intergovernmental partners, ideally within the White House. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton described Trump’s decision to eliminate the directorate as “streamlining” the NSC. And Tim Morrison, the former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the NSC, has written that, “the bloat that occurred under the previous administration clearly needed a correction.”

It’s impossible to say how much the change ultimately affected the pandemic response, but Trump’s willingness to shutter a tool in the pandemic response toolset over cost seems shortsighted.

“Pandemics, like weapons of mass destruction and climate change, are transnational threats with potentially existential consequences,” Cameron wrote in the Washington Post. “No single department or agency can be responsible for handling them. Pandemic threats may not arise every year, but the White House should constantly prepare for them. We can’t afford for federal decision makers to waste time relearning old lessons when they should be innovating and acting.”

It’s worth noting that the economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has been estimated at $14 trillion and the estimated global death toll since January 2020 is approaching 30 million. To coordinate the next governmental response to a pandemic, the Biden administration is requesting $6.2 million in its 2025 budget for OPPR.


Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.


Topics: Biosecurity

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
guest
1 Comment
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John Goudge
John Goudge
23 days ago

Trump needs to save money to fund tax cuts for his backers and donors.
He is incapable of learning from previous events and is solely focused on his goals.
Some have speculated that he wants to render the US broke and ungovernable except by him and his authoritarian regime.