Amid the coronavirus pandemic, you’ve probably heard that public health officials have been predicting a pandemic for years. So why did it seem we were caught so flat-footed when it actually happened? Today, one person asking that question is a scientific name you may recognize if you’ve been around long enough: Dr. Steven Hatfill. He’s an adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine at George Washington University and co-author of Three Seconds Until Midnight, which has turned out to be a case of incredible timing.
Dr. Steven Hatfill: This is the age of epidemics and pandemics.
Sharyl: You wrote a book called Three Seconds Until Midnight. Ironically, that was published in November, probably about the time the coronavirus outbreak was really starting in China, as far as we know.
Dr. Hatfill: Yeah, I had nothing to do with it.
Sharyl: I believe you.
Dr. Hatfill: I get blamed for everything.
Sharyl: Yes, you do.
Sharyl (voice-over): That’s a veiled reference to the FBI wrongly pointing the finger at Dr. Hatfill for the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks when someone killed five people by anonymously mailing anthrax spores to news offices and politicians.
Hatfill, a biodefense weapons researcher, had worked at the National Institutes of Health and the Army lab at Fort Detrick, which studies anthrax. In 2002, the press was tipped off and an FBI raid on Hatfill’s apartment was shown live on TV. FBI agents drained a nearby pond, tapped his phone and surveilled him for two years. They ultimately admitted they had the wrong man. Hatfill sued the FBI, Justice Department and media and won millions of dollars in settlements.
Since then, he’s continued his scientific work, including studying pandemics and how prepared we are.
Sharyl: And Three Seconds Until Midnight meant, in the view of you and the authors?
Dr. Hatfill: Pandemic.
Dr. Hatfill: But a serious pandemic like the 1918 influenza.
Sharyl: But isn't this a serious pandemic as well?
Dr. Hatfill: This isn't the one we're worried about. Let me tell you.
Dr. Hatfill: The one we're worried about has perhaps a 20% mortality rate.
Sharyl: Instead of fractional or?
Dr. Hatfill: Instead of fractional. Or let's give it 1%.
Sharyl: So this, in your view, was just a very small taste?
Dr. Hatfill: It's our last warning from Mother Nature.
Sharyl: Explain what you say, why you think there is something out there that could be that fatal and even more damaging?
Dr. Hatfill: Sharyl, we’re living under population densities that are completely unnatural. No other species of large mammal has ever achieved our population densities. This is a great global experiment that we're all part of. And with respect to infectious diseases, we don't know how this is going to turn out.
Sharyl: Is there anything we could do to be properly prepared to minimize the big thing?
Dr. Hatfill: Of course. We have the CDC. They have their systems for doing disease surveillance. They work very closely with the WHO, too dependently, I think. But we need another system.
Sharyl: Is this one military-based in your view?
Dr. Hatfill: Yeah. If you think something's going on, that could be critical to the national security of the United States, and if you don't think infectious diseases are critical, look at what's happening now, you need on-site verification.
Sharyl: How do you get that if the country does not want you there? China, according to our officials, did not open things up to us that we needed to see.
Dr. Hatfill: There's people that are very good at getting into places and out.
Sharyl: In simple terms, are you suggesting maybe a team of military people or scientists could fly into a country, take what they need, maybe surreptitiously if they have to, but take biological samples and try to figure this out?
Dr. Hatfill: Yeah. Most of the time, you don't have to get the military involved. And if they're having trouble with this, you bring it back to the CDC as sample, and everybody works together and this gets sorted out.
In areas of conflict, obviously, you need to send people in, that can look after themselves that have a high degree of medical training and special operations. There's engineers involved, have them build an isolation clinic and teach themselves how to isolate and do case contact tracing and try to keep it contained. Or they can call an airdrop of some equipment if they need it. It's very variable, their skills, and it can be tailor made to a situation.
Sharyl: Is there a way to quantify how much funding federal tax money has gone in for pandemic preparedness over the years?
Dr. Hatfill: So up until about the mid-2000s, published peer reviewed papers acknowledged that the US government had spent anywhere from $70 to $80 billion on biological preparedness whether its pandemic or intentional attack on a US city. My own estimates are around $120 billion.
Sharyl: Not to be armchair quarterback, but when the coronavirus outbreak happened, it seemed like a lot of things, we were starting from scratch, from funding to where are the ventilators and so on. If $70 to $120 billion has been spent over the years.
Dr. Hatfill: Where did it go?
Sharyl: Yeah, where did it go?
Dr. Hatfill: This was evident in 2014 when we couldn't handle a few Ebola patients that had managed to come over here from West Africa. That's really when my interest became very concerned.
Sharyl (voice-over): Hatfill says that until 2010, the Army had a small, specialized team operating out of Ft. Detrick called the Aeromedical Isolation Team.
Dr. Hatfill: They put on the spacesuits and they would go anywhere in the world and collect a scientist or American citizen or whatever, soldier, and bring them back, fly them back under containment. And the containment thing actually fit into the side of the Ft. Detrick building and it locked when patient was pulled inside and they're in a spacesuit room. And all the doctors from Walter Reed would come up and practice doing their stuff wearing the blue spacesuits. It was safe, it was effective. 2010 under the military sequestration, that capability was lost.
Sharyl (voice-over): He says, four years later, in 2014, the Army Aeromedical Isolation Team was needed to bring back the first Ebola case from West Africa but it had been decommissioned.
Dr. Hatfill: You need it four years later and you have to throw something together quickly and then use a Gulfstream. Not really how you need to be doing something that doesn't have a cure and doesn't have a vaccine. So that team, what did it cost to keep up and running and exercise a couple times a year compared to maybe a billion and a half dollars USAID had spent trying to contain it. And Then getting the 101st Airborne over there, 3,000 soldiers, and praying they don't get infected while they're building the isolation clinics in Liberia. That would have kept that little team running for the next 50 years. So, penny-wise pound foolish.
Sharyl (on camera): The U.S. does have a Pandemic Influenza Plan, developed in 2005, which you can find on CDC’s website. It envisions states taking the lead on pandemic response, supported by the federal government. Scenarios envisioned did not include a total national shutdown.