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20 May 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:45pm

“We were sounding the alarms“: the doctor in Congress who tried to warn Trump about a coming pandemic

Ami Bera is a Congressman and former chief medical officer who in 2018 opposed White House plans to cancel pandemic funding and disband the preparedness office. 

By Emily Tamkin

In late February, public health officials made an announcement: they had confirmed the first known case of a person getting Covid-19 without having travelled abroad or coming into contact with someone who had had the virus. This first reported case of community transmission was detected at the University of California, Davis Medical Centre in Sacramento.

For some, the news was confusing and concerning. For others, it was too remote to be considered a direct threat. But for one member of Congress, it was something more personal. Ami Bera, who has represented a California congressional district since 2013, was previously chief medical officer for Sacramento County. The reported patient was at, as Bera calls it, “my old hospital”.

The coronavirus pandemic caught many in the public, and in politics, by surprise; the same day that first case of community transmission was confirmed, President Donald Trump told a White House press conference that the caseload in the US would, “within a couple of days”, be “close to zero“. But this was not the case for Bera who had, three weeks earlier (5 February), chaired the first congressional hearing on the coronavirus.

He was, in fact, pushing for pandemic preparedness even before SARS-Cov-2 existed. In 2018, he led opposition to White House plans to cancel pandemic funding, and wrote to the then national security advisor, John Bolton, to object to Donald Trump’s decision to disband the National Security Council’s pandemic preparedness office. “We fear these recent decisions will leave the United States vulnerable to pandemics and commit us to a strategy of triage should one occur,” he warned.

“Being a doctor in Congress during a pandemic obviously gives me a unique perspective,” Bera tells me in a phone interview. Having not only practised medicine but worked as a chief medical officer, he says, means that he’s thought through epidemics, albeit on a smaller scale. How do you identify diseases? How do you try to contain and trace them? What does treatment look like?

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“That’s always been an area I’ve been interested in,” Bera says.

But interest and a determination to act are two different things. Why, I ask Bera, did he think it was important two years ago to push for pandemic preparedness? It wasn’t, back then, the big story of the day.

“Because one of the lessons we learned in 2014 with Ebola … you needed one person whose sole responsibility was to work across the interagency process,” he says. Had the pandemic preparedness infrastructure not been dismantled, “We would have had someone paying attention … You would have had someone early on in 2020 when Wuhan was starting to shut down … You would have had someone who understood this virus is coming to the United States”. And maybe you — maybe we — would have been more prepared with diagnostic test prep. But “none of that existed”.

“That’s why we were sounding the alarms. We knew we would see additional viral outbreaks.”

Bera, age 55, was born in California, and is a product of its state college system: he got his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of California, Irvine. He graduated from medical school in 1991 and practised in the Sacramento area, eventually becoming the county’s chief medical officer. He did a stint as an educator, too, as a clinical professor of medicine at University of California, Davis. Bera ran for Congress in 2010 and lost; he ran again in 2012 and won. He’s been there since, and is the longest-serving Indian-American in Congress.

Bera, of course, isn’t the only doctor serving in Congress during a pandemic. There are others, including Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky who used the Senate gym while awaiting his Covid-19 test result (he tested positive).

Bera is especially notable because, in addition being a doctor, also holds the title of chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation — overseeing an area of US policy that will surely come under greater scrutiny as the Trump administration tries to blame China for the coronavirus pandemic.

“China is not without responsibility,” says Bera, pointing to the country’s “lack of transparency” around the virus. “I think we should hold China accountable. But at the end of the day, this is a virus. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

“I think the reason why Trump is shifting to blame China is his incredible ineptness. You can quote me on that. It is almost malpractice how badly he and his administration have handled this pandemic”.

He notes that Trump is not the only one who seems to have had a difficult time wrapping his head around reacting to the pandemic. “You’re seeing … autocrats truly struggle with managing this pandemic,” he says. “Because it’s a virus. You can’t control a virus. You can only control how you respond to it.”

I asked if he worries that Trump — and other leaders, but specifically Trump — will, via their go-it-alone rhetoric, create further issues with the supply chains and co-operation needed to combat the virus.

“Yes, very much,” he replies. “If President Trump somehow gets re-elected and maintains this go-it-alone approach, it will make [the pandemic and recovery from it] harder, longer, cost us more lives.”

The world won’t be rid of this virus until the majority of the world’s population is vaccinated. And even if a vaccine is discovered in the next six to 12 months (“a monumental task”), it has to be manufactured. Six billion doses will need to be made; there will need to be enough glass in which to store and transport it; there will need to be sufficient syringes with which to inject it into the people desperately waiting for it. And what if one country discovers a vaccine that works for the elderly and another discovers a vaccination for children?

“It’s a monumental logistical and scientific challenge,” Bera says. Having diagnosed the problem, he offers a prescription. “The world has to work together on this.”

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