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Top Health and Human Services officials offered to send American experts to China within a week after China revealed a new virus was on the loose.
China resisted American and World Health Organization teams, but eventually allowed a WHO team —that included some Americans — to enter the country.
CDC shrank its China office in 2019, largely driven by a reduction in efforts to control HIV/AIDS.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has targeted what he sees as a couple of key failures by President Donald Trump that made the coronavirus crisis worse. In a CNN virtual town hall, Biden talked about the early days as the virus spread from China.
"I said, among others, that, you know, you should get into China, get our experts there, we have the best in the world, get them in so we know what's actually happening," Biden said March 27. "There was no effort to do that. He didn't put any pressure on (Chinese President) Xi. I guess because of his trade deal, which wasn't much of a deal. And in addition to that, what happened was, we had one person in-country who was working. He pulled him out of the country."
There are two claims to sort out: that Trump made no effort to get American epidemiologists into China, and that he pulled out the one person who was working there.
Biden’s first claim distorts the American response, and the second skips over other changes that took place at the same time.
The words of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Jan. 28 undercut Biden’s sweeping statement that "there was no effort" to get experts into China.
Azar said that by Jan. 6, about a week after China confirmed the existence of a new virus, "we offered to send a CDC team to China."
"I reiterated that offer when I spoke to China's Minister of Health on Monday (Jan. 27), and it was reiterated again via the World Health Organization today," Azar said. "We are urging China: More cooperation and transparency are the most important steps you can take toward a more effective response."
There is no question that China resisted the presence of outside experts.
The World Health Organization was working its own medical diplomacy to get more visibility into the China situation. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Xi on Jan. 28 in Beijing. That was a month into the pandemic and while he won approval for the deployment of a WHO team, that didn’t happen until Feb. 10.
The WHO group included some Americans, but in a statement, the Health and Human Services Departments said the Chinese "limited the ability and timing for CDC staff to participate in the WHO joint mission."
Biden’s campaign staff said that Trump himself should have pressed the issue in his conversations with Xi. We asked the White House press office if he had and got no comment.
Regardless, Azar, a high-ranking member of the cabinet, did tell his Chinese counterpart that the United States was ready to provide people. In a Jan. 27 tweet, Trump said he had broadly done the same.
"We have offered China and President Xi any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary," Trump said.
Biden said Trump pulled the "one person" in China "who was working." This, his staff said, referred to the July 2019 departure of an American epidemiologist from the CDC’s China office. (The CDC maintains offices in countries around the world. The one in China dates back to 2003.)
Reuters reported that the CDC epidemiologist, Linda Quick, would have been in a position to help Chinese experts respond to the emerging disease precisely because she was embedded in China’s CDC to train Chinese specialists.
The CDC’s website shows that the U.S. staff in China went from eight in March 2019 to three in December 2019. The change was driven by a shift in the U.S. strategy to combat HIV/AIDS, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said.
"The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief under the Office of Global AIDS Coordinator moved to a regional model in this region and based on the epidemic in China to date, changes were made to the existing footprint," the department’s statement said.
In July 2019, the CDC said it would complete its PEPFAR-funded work in China that year.
The department’s statement also said that CDC began "scaling up" before the outbreak. That didn’t necessarily mean additional U.S. staff. The program hires more Chinese staffers than American ones.
Biden said that Trump made "no effort" to get American experts into China and pulled the "one person" the U.S. had on the ground out of China.
Trump’s personal role is unclear, but his Health and Human Services secretary did make the effort to get U.S. experts inside. The department reached out to China in the first week of January, and secretary Azar asked his Chinese counterpart again in late January. China resisted outsiders, both from the U.S. and WHO.
Biden’s assertion that Trump pulled the "one person" out of China has more substance, but is not as straight-forward as he made it sound. An American CDC epidemiologist left in July and was not replaced. The overall American staff went from eight down to three. According to the Health and Human Services Department, the staff reduction was mainly driven by changes in the U.S. strategy to reduce HIV/AIDS. Biden made it sound as though everyone left, but some CDC staff remained.
The first claim is, at best, exaggerated, and the second is murky on the details. We rate Biden’s attack Mostly False.
CNN, Joe Biden Town Hall, March 27, 2020
U.S. Health and Human Services Department, Remarks at Coronavirus Press Briefing, Jan. 28, 2020
World Health Organization, Novel coronavirus press conference at United Nations of Geneva, Jan. 29, 2020
Donald Trump, tweet, Jan. 27, 2020
Institut Montaigne, Fighting the Coronavirus Pandemic: China's Influence at the World Health Organization, March 23, 2020
Japan Times, WHO advance team on coronavirus finally on way to China, Feb. 10, 2020
Science, Mission impossible? WHO director fights to prevent a pandemic without offending China, Feb. 10, 2020
Reuters, U.S. slashed CDC staff inside China prior to coronavirus outbreak, March 25, 2020
Reuters, U.S. axed CDC expert job in China months before virus outbreak, March 22, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Global HIV and TB: China, July 2019
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Global health: China, March 5, 2019
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Global health: China, Dec. 24, 2019
New York Times, C.D.C. and W.H.O. Offers to Help China Have Been Ignored for Weeks, Feb. 7, 2020
Factcheck.org, Biden’s False Claim on Trump’s Response to Coronavirus, April 1, 2020
Washington Post, How much pressure did Trump put on China for access concerning the coronavirus?, April 3, 2020
Statement, press office, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, April 3, 2020
Interview, Michael Gwin, spokesman, Biden for President, April 2, 2020
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