tv QA Lawrence Wright The Plague Year CSPAN September 27, 2021 6:03am-7:01am EDT
into your book, "the plague year: america in the time of covid," i wanted to get your opinion on afghanistan. what were your thoughts as you saw the taliban take control of that country after the 20 years war? lawrence: enormous sadness. i was in kabul, afghanistan in 2003. there was a lot of hope and building underway. people had a sense that they turned a page. it is heartbreaking to see how that whole promise of afghanistan has simply collapsed into what we don't know. i think it is an ominous new opening to a new chapter. >> what do you think it means for american security? lawrence: al qaeda became a dangerous force when they had the opportunity to train.
before that, they were a nuisance. once they had the training camps operating, they became a very potent force. that is what everybody's worried about. the taliban say they are not going to let that happen but al qaeda had been fighting with the taliban. they are essentially an integrated force. separating those two entities be difficult. host: the nation is marking the 20th anniversary of those attacks and i am wondering what your perspectives are with time and some mindset -- hindsight? lawrence: the country has profoundly changed.
i often worry about young people who don't know the america that preceded 9/11. they don't have a sense of freedom and community and trust. the security state we have built to protect ourselves, i am not saying we did not need to do that but it has changed our country considerably. what i worry about mainly is that young people won't know what america was like before 9/11. it will be very difficult to steer it back to that because we will have forgotten the country we used to be. >> we added 1.5 years of a pandemic into the mix. let's turn to that new book called the play here. -- plague year. lawrence: i was asked by the
editor of the new yorker to write about the pandemic. it was open ended. he calls it the big, dumb story they had not done yet. i was resistant at first. i had already written a novel about a pandemic that came out in the middle of the pandemic. i started thinking about how this pandemic has touched everything in our lives. i began to think what else is more important to do? it was a challenging assignment.
i thought it was time to write something that was sleeping and examining how americans have changed not just society but ourselves, how this pandemic has affected each of us. host: readers will find a scene that i found really dramatic, it was a phone call between dr. robert redfield and his chinese counterpart, dr. george fu go -- fu-gau. dr. fu-gau was in tears during that call and said we are too late. what let him to that -- led him to that conclusion? host: it was denied that this was -- lawrence: this was denied that this was a transmissible
disease between humans. what happened during that conversation is that redfield if he could send a cdc team of experts, epi-down motorists, microbiologists to china to find out what is going on and to help out. he said he was not authorized to give him permission but seek it the chinese government. redfield did on a number of occasions and the chinese would never let these americans or any other western nation in to examine what was going on. that was a huge mistake, a huge loss. americans would have found out that it was transmissible but they also would have found out that it is not at all the disease they were expecting. it was a disease that transmitted through a center medic infection.
people were sick, not knowing they were ill and passing it on to others. more than half of the contagion was spread to people who had no symptoms whatsoever. it would have totally changed the approach we had in combating this disease had we known that. host: i wanted to read a paragraph from your book to describe the chinese approach to this at the beginning. the chinese government failed to warn the who or even its own people about the dangers of the new disease until the news was out. the chinese ordered unauthorized labs to stop testing examples. these steps slow the flow of information about the virus and they impeded the science required to develop a reliable test. chinese at there was continued to doubt the threat when they knew about it. they demanded that researchers stop publishing about the virus and sees warning about the danger of the outbreak.
-- cease warning about the danger of the outbreak. why would they take as approach to something that is so deadly? lawrence: looking back at the 2002-2003 sars outbreak, at that time, sars was far more contagious than sars to. -- sars-2. went to china back then to find out what was going on, the chinese reportedly hid the patient's in ambulances and taxis until health authorities were gone. they had a sense that they did not want to be held responsible for a worldwide pandemic. by that time, it already spread to singapore, hong kong, toronto, san francisco. it was an immense effort by
public health and a lot of luck. the international health regulation was rewritten because of the chinese behavior. this is the first test of china's transparency, faced with a dramatic new outbreak and they totally failed the test. had they been more transparent from the beginning, we would have had a much better chance of stopping the spread of this contagion and at least mitigating it. >> the response is indicative of the -- of this. if that was the case, how does the world protect its public health going forward? lawrence: this is a real question. this is not just a health matter, it is a national security issue. we have to have compliance with
the international health regulations. we have to examine the many demands by the united states to be allowed to have an actual investigation into the origin of this virus and total -- china totally shut that down. when australia made that request that the chinese sanctioned the australian government, just for making the request to send the investigators to china to find out where this disease investigated -- originated. host: president trump was criticized for dubbing the irish the china virus. when you look at hindsight and what you learned about the approach, was he wrong? lawrence: i agree with the cdc feeling that we should not stigmatize countries for the origin of the virus. there was this pandemic of the
flu called the spanish flu and spain had nothing to do with the origin of that influenza outbreak. it became the spanish flu because of 1918, the first world war, there was censorship in spain with nonsense and the newspapers so we got tagged with the blame. the delta variant -- i think it is -- in this case, the stigma is in many cases warranted by the chinese behaviors. it is hard to reconcile these two things. there is no reason to try to steer up the -- stir up the joe political pot but china really needs to be responsible to the international community. host: do you think the world
will ever know the origin of cover 19? -- covid-19? lawrence: if there is a whistleblower in china that is willing to risk so much and expand what happened with a possible lab leak from the wuhan institute of her allergy or -- urology -- virology or this was found in nature. it could have originated with a bat and spread to an intermediate animal like a pangolin. if we find that to be the case, we will know. lacking that, i don't think we will ever know. host: start with the who, how did it do its job? lawrence: let's be charitable with the who in the sense that it has no actual power.
it is entirely dependent on the cooperation of number countries for any kind of information or cooperation. it does not have teeth. we don't have a world health organization that can actually impose certain demands on member countries. we should. it is a matter of universal safety. the who was incredibly compliant with chinese demand and in many ways, the who serve the needs of chinese authority better than they did the health of the world. host: going back to your description of the disease itself, it was a phrase that stuck with me that it arrived on cap pause -- cat paws. what mistakes did the early researchers make? perceptions about covid that led them in a direction that could
be offkilter? lawrence: this is a fluke, it is -- people, said this was a magnified flu. it is not. it does not behave like the flu. the symptoms are so myriad. the flu, when you get sick, you know you have the flu. you go to bed and that actually reduces the transmission because people subtract themselves from society in order to get well. here you had people raging with virus and did not know it. they were spreading it in that way. it took a long time for the american public health institutions to figure out. there was a great deal of resistance to wearing masks. with the flu, it is not common
to wear masks. with this particular virus, mask wearing turned out to be essential. an example is hong kong. this was because of the habit of wearing masks during contagions. host: you talk about three stink opportunities we had to curb the covid spread. before we get to tests, i wanted to ask you about mask wearing. it is not just part of our culture, it is becoming a hot political subject. how did that happen? lawrence: you can lay the blame at the former president. trump was invited by the covid task force to brief the american
people on the fact that mask wearing would help. it is the only thing we had left in our arsenal of tools to deal with this spread of contagion. he went on television and said masks are working. i have been advised, i am told you should wear it. i am not going to wear a mask, you might want to but i am not. he subverted the message from the beginning and not only refused to wear a mask in public, he went to a mask making factory that mask. -- without a mask. what kind of message was he sending? the contempt, the last thing we had that could have mitigated the spread of the contagion. >> move to the second point on reliable tests, especially with in a systematic disease -- an asymptomatic disease.
lawrence: from the beginning, the chinese refused to send a sample of the virus. they still never sent an example of the original virus. that is what you use to create a test. it wasn't until january 20 of 2020 when the first case was detected in washington state and we had an example of the virus. that was the start of the creation of the test kit. the cdc is the gold standard, it has been since this origin for public health institutions all over the world. it is heartbreaking to see that these institutions were so humble but this is the hardest
thing for me to understand. before he left the doors of the cdc to go to public health clinics around the country, the people who invented the test new that it would fail at least 30% of the time. it was unreliable from the get-go and they did not tell anybody. it was public health labs that began testing it. what you normally do with such a test is tested against something you know to be sterile like water that is purified. water was stirring up with covid. something was wrong. the cdc went back to work on it. weeks passed. these were critical weeks where the virus was spreading all across america but we were blind because we did not have the test. finally they sent an emissary to the lab and he discovered
immediately what was going on in a lab where they were making the test, it was the same room where they were testing hospitals and public health agencies around the country? it was a simple contamination of the virus. the solution was to send production outside of the cdc. that was done immediately and the problem was solved. all of february was lost because we did not have a test. host: how did the cdc get to this point? lawrence: when i was a young reporter, it was a great institution, i thought it was the finest example i had ever seen and the people who worked there were extraordinary. i learned from interviewing people that perhaps some of the
caliber of the science has diminished. whether or not that was true, there was money on the cdc. it lost its way. it was renowned recently for being really slow to react. in this case, speed was of the essence. when they put the gas on and came up with a faulty test, somehow they just lost the spirit and the competence they once had. host: there is also a role for congressional oversight. i want to turn to congress, you write that the united states said it was ready for a pandemic and there were exercises during the obama administration and in 2019, the trump administration conducted an exercise called crimson contagion. congress was briefed about this.
how did they react? lawrence: the entire government did not react. not at all really to the threat of the pandemic. dr. fauci predicted before the pandemic that a pandemic would hit during trump and administration. there were public health officials who knew. there were people i talked to when i was working on my novel about the pandemic. it was widely feared that a pandemic would hit and that we would not be any more prepared than we were in 1980. budgets were cut in public health for years. tens of thousands of jobs in public health around the country had been lost. it is definitely there is possibility of the government to support the public health
institutions. there was a kind of hubris that spread throughout the country. i suppose the complacency had taken place. i wanted to say something about the crimson contagion. the obama administration put -- past of a playbook to the trump and administration about what to do in case of a pandemic but the trump administration threw it out. their own exercise called the crimson contagion that lasted for months involved hospitals, the cdc health and human services, the red cross, it was a vast array, they had a scenario which was a traveler returns home to chicago and the next day his son goes to iraq concert and six months later,
586,000 americans are dead. it is pre-close to the actual number. what did they learn in this contagion exercise? they learned states were ill-equipped to deal with it themselves. government agencies did not know who was in charge. the businesses were going to start figure out how to keep in business with their employees working from home. >> you said the first known arrival was on january 20. only 20 united states senators
showed up. >> it was not taken seriously. it was the intelligence in the white house, the daily briefing, there was very little about the pandemic. it was essentially not seen as a threat despite the fact that by this time, china began to close down cities. half a billion people were locked down. for some reason, this disease was not taken seriously. even public health people work perhaps a little lax in sounding the alarm. host: let's move all the trump administration. one of the figures readers will meet throughout your story is a
man by the name of matthew. this is from an appearance on face the nation on february 21st of 2021. let's watch. >> i covered the sars epidemic when i was living in china, writing for the wall street journal. i dusted off some of my old contacts and talked to chinese doctors. they were very open and said this thing is not going to be like sars 2003, it is going to be like the 1918 flu pandemic because it is spreading soundly. we are talking to the chinese, party in an authoritarian regime that cares about nothing but its own survival, we were a little bit to credulous, we were waiting to be fed, they had a strong incentive to mislead their own public and the rest of the world about the nature of
this virus and that is why we are paying the price that we paid. host: why was he so helpful in understanding the first covid here? lawrence: matt is a unique figure. he was a national security the trump administration. he speaks fluent mandarin, as he mentioned in the clip, he covered the sars outbreak for the wall street journal. i am fond of that because he acted as a reporter instead of relying on the intelligence community to produce briefs, they took the phone and called sources. there was first-hand information about what was going on in china. he became the essential man in
the trump white house. his wife had been an immunologist at the cdc and created an aids test and his brother was an epidemiologist at the university of washington where the first case was protected. he had tentacles out in these communities that were unique. even public health people were ill-informed about what was coming up -- what was happening in china until they were made aware of what was happening there. host: what was his role inside the white house meetings? lawrence: he created the coronavirus task force and brought in the represented is
from different agencies and public health people to get everybody in the room to try to coordinate our response. they met every day. they did not meet any day for anything else. there was a lot of seriousness put into that task force. through that, he convinced them to stoplights from china. china shut down internal transportation but flights to other countries they allowed and tens of thousands of people were coming every month to china. that was stopped and also travel from europe became so besieged. he was also the first person to where a mask in the white house -- wear a mask in the white house. host: this was a bold stroke
that may have saved up to a million people from dying. what are your thoughts about the president making that decision? what did you learn about what got him to the point to say yes to that ban >>? -- ban? lawrence: that was a hard decision. even people in the public out community were mixed about it because one of the maxims of public health is that travel bans don't work. i the time you oppose them, the disease is always -- already leaked over the borders. in this case, the intensity of international travel has changed so much, it was time for the public health community to reevaluate that. there were people in the
secretary of treasury and the white house chief of staff work appalled. it was a struggle to get them to face the fact that the disease was pouring across our borders. we have to give credit for him to bring that to the president's attention and create an environment in which public health people and eventually the treasury secretary would see the need to block these flights in over two debt in order to slow the transition. >> the wet has many was a critical one. the present was told it would be the biggest decision of his presidency. set the scene for us about what happened in the debate. >> you can imagine the different interests that were at the table
, we still see it play out. there were people advocating for the health of the nation and there were people advocating for the economic health of the nation. they saw it as being irretrievably at odds. it really became a question for the president to make a decision about other two lockdown the country. and to take the economic hit that the treasury secretary and others suggested what happened. there was a lockdown, may too ambitious to call it a lockdown but there was a crackdown on social behavior in the u.s. that made a real difference at the time. when the first wave was
beginning to crest and people were finally beginning to realize the degree of damage this disease was causing not just to people's health but also to our economy and after that, the way it began to subside. >> let's listen to preston trump on the night of march 11, announcing the lockdown would ensue. . >> i will never take any -- i will never hesitate to take any necessary steps to save the lives of the american people. i will always put the well-being of america first. if we can reduce the chance of infection, we will significant he impeded the transmission of the virus. the virus will not have a chance against us. no nation is more prepared or more resilient than the united states. we have the most advanced
economy, health care and actors and researchers then anywhere in the world. our future remains later than anyone imagined. we will heal the sick, care for those in need, help our fellow citizens and emerge from this challenge stronger and more unified than ever before. >> we are listening to president trump march of 2020. how did those comments compare with the way he presented the virus to the public? lawrence: had he been the president that he said he was in that speech, the nation would have had an entirely different experience with covid-19. right after that speech, he had a call with the governor in 50 states. he said we are behind you. he explained what that meant. he said we are behind you in terms of support but in terms of
ppe and ventilators and stuff like that, get yourselves, it is much easier that way. at that moment, the governors realized they were on their own. there was no federal plan that was going to come in and help them. there were federal plans but they weren't going to be intimate -- but they weren't going to be implement it. the governor of michigan told me that she realized that in some hospitals in detroit, they were out of ppe already. it was not a matter of weeks and months. they were out. the governors began to call china, trying to buy ventilators, masks, loves, gowns, syringes, all the stuff they would expect to be coming from the federal government. andrew cuomo, the governor of new york said it was like being on ebay. he would put in an order for masks and found out that
california outbid him. charlie baker had ordered 3 million masks from china to boston. the feds confiscated it. the next time he sent the new england patriots plane to china. when it arrived with the masks, they hid them from the government. this is something they never. they would have to handle themselves. the federal government essentially abandoned its authority to handle this pandemic. >> when there is a huge event like a hurricane or wildfires, what happened here that such a different approach was taken?
>> there was a reluctance to exercise the 30 of the government. there was a national stockpile of ppe, and leaders. it was very depleted. it was not just trump's fault. it had been depleted whether it was a fluke epidemic during the obama administration that had never been replenished. yes, the supplies were diminished. there were political soon against that took precedence. the chief spokesperson snatched $3 million out of the cdc budget to try to create an ad campaign using celebrities to support the president and his efforts to
combat the virus. that never happened. there were trump supporters that were incredible enough to be part of the ad. it was undermining the authority of the cdc. infighting between the fcc and cdc and nhs that the government was at odds with itself. it was all tangled up and unable and unwilling to do the kinds of things that would be called government. host: how did the vaccine store become such a success? lawrence: i have to give trump credit for this, he approved operation warp speed. the government guaranteed pharmaceutical companies that they would be reimbursed for
their expenses in developing a vaccine even if it did not work or was never used. based on that, pharmaceutical companies died in. moderna was already on board. if the government had not underwritten the developing of the vaccines at the scale they did, knowing there would be vaccines that did not work and would never be used, we would be in a far worse situation. at the time, it was predicted that we would not have a useful vaccine until the fall of this year. the delta variant was raging around, no vaccine to stand in its way. >> to doctors on the vaccine story that you described as heroes are barney graham and
jason mcclellan. why are the heroes? -- day heroes -- why are they heroes? lawrence: barney graham had been working for years trying to create a vaccine for rsp, a disease that mainly affects infants. he was struggling until jason came into his lab of infectious diseases. jason is a structural biologist. that is a relatively new field of biology. he used incredibly advanced imagery to see the virus particles. using those techniques, they began to work on coronaviruses. sars and other coronaviruses to
see if they could develop a vaccine for those respective diseases. they had a head start. when they finally got the genetic sequence in january of 2020, it took them only two days to create the vaccine. they sent it to moderna. six weeks later, human trials are underway. there had never been a vaccine developed so quickly. rather one as effective as the one that is in the moderna and pfizer vaccines. >> how did the fda perform in vaccine development? >> i think the fda slowed things down. we still have not had full approval of the vaccine as you can see. even though millions of people had taken it. it had been extorted nearly safe and effective. -- it was an extra nearly safe and effective vaccine.
the fda slowed things down with the testing. i can't say the fda or the cdc or hhs, any of the agencies that are primarily devoted to public health in the united states performed well in this experience. lawrence: it is good there is a figure that is widely trusted in anthony fauci with concern to public health. he was not always right, he was slow on the use of masks and he may have given some mixed messages but dr. fauci is a scientist and with all the criticism of him, people are criticizing him for not being right about things he couldn't
have known. we did not know at the beginning that this was a symptom attic -- asymptomatically stress visible. you have to be a prophet to know some of the things he was criticized for. every scientist working on covid-19 had to struggle with the ways this virus probably gets itself. it has been a very confounding experience and people had seen in real time what it is like when science takes on the problem of a novel disease it has never encountered before. host: while we are talking about public officials, dr. fauci survived even though he and president trump were at odds. dr. deborah birx did not. you described her in making the
decision to come join the task force, wondering whether or not her career was going to be over. what happened? lawrence: she was a u.s. aids investor. she worked at the cdc previously. she was in south africa when matt called and asked her to come had the coronavirus -- head the coronavirus task force. debra birx knew, having dealt with aids that pandemics are incredibly political. and that it was going to be a highly controversial subject. probably in the face of this ever to stop the pandemic, she was going to be criticized so roundly that it would probably be the end of her career. she was absolutely right about
that. host: one part of the story that you tell about her is after she left public view, she got in her car and did a road trip. what was the purpose of it? lawrence: she realized she lost influence in the trump white house. other people were whispering into the president's ear. saying things that just let them all get sick and we will get herd immunity. that is so counter and she had no way to influence the present at that point. she took to the road with her chief epidemiologist. they went all over the country. some states they visited multiple times, talking to governors, university presidents, union leaders and telling them what they needed to do to combat the virus. she was the only government
official in the country doing this. she would sometimes chastise the governors right in front of them in public about the need to impose mass mandates. a lot of minds are changed about that personal encounter. this is despite the fact that she had become reviled by a lot of people because of that scene when the president talked about drinking bleach and putting some light inside your body. you see her eyes rolling but she did not say anything. at that point, she became a piñata for public criticism. host: we have about 10 minutes
left. it is a sweeping story so let me invite people to read the book and learn more about the stories you tell and move into some broader observations. you tell the story of the richest country in the world with world-class hospitals that have done preparations for pandemics and we ended up with the largest number of debts, over 600,000. what did you learn about why we found ourselves in these circumstances? lawrence: the figures you talk about, us being number one, there was a global pandemic preparedness report that was prepared by johns hopkins and other entities. it meant the united states number one in being prepared and all the things the president cited, the greatest public health detergents in the world,
they were true. but if you turned the rankings upside down, it would have been -- number one and number two are doing really poorly. hubris had a lot to do with it. in my opinion, every country in the world was going to be affected. it was a terrible event and found to be. tens of thousands of people were bound to die in the united states but maybe not hundred of thousands. production and deaths would have been extraordinary. even inside our country, you
could measure the difference in the state. there is vermont and south dakota, small states. they both had republican governors. they had 12 times fewer deaths than the same size. virginia was a good exam will because the governor there, jim justice who is a co-baron and a republican, not the kind of person you would normally associate with compassion but when this disease first hit, he told his citizens west virginia is among the oldest and sickest states in the union. this is going to devastate us. we have to do everything we can,
starting with testing people in the old folks homes and making sure they got vaccinations as quickly as possible, he would go on air in the evenings and talk about the people who died that day. he really made a difference. i am not saying that west virginia was superb and the ranking of all the states but it was supposed to be at the bottom. it did about as well as texas. a far healthier and younger state. i think our death toll would have been far lower than it is. host: you want readers that covid-19 was a harbinger of what was to come.
will we be prepared for the next round? lawrence: when diseases come along like this, even the black plague in the 14th century, those tend to get buried in history. there was a war going on. there were 109 people worldwide. if history takes note of this pandemic, we will be seen as a kind of x-ray of our society.
we know that we are not the country who was the highest rate in the world to handle this. we are broken country. the disease is an x-ray that allows us to see all those fractures inside our society. it offers us the opportunity to amend them. whether we take that opportunity or not, i think it is too early to tell. host: to inject a personal note about you into our conversation, throughout the story, you do tell personal experiences. we learned about your scare with polio as a child. we learned about friends of yours that contracted the disease. why did you decide to make this personal? host: people care more about --
lawrence: people care more about a subject if they meet people inside the discussion that they relate to. i have always tried in my writing to tell stories of the human experience. rarely have i injected myself as a character. i had something different characters that i thought i needed some kind of unifying voice. i thought i would be like tomato sauce and unify everything together. it was interesting to realize how disease played a role in my life as it plays in everyone's lives. going backs that morning when i woke up and could not move my legs, that was possibly a reaction to vaccination.
that experience helped me understand the kind of anti-vaccination hysteria keeping people from getting the safest vaccination we can imagine. i think related things personally keeps you honest with the reader. that is what i was trying to achieve. host: in the acknowledgment, you write that you're at the and of alone journalism career. is this going to be your last book? lawrence: susan, you exley read that -- actually read that. i like to write about the experiences of writing the book. i hope it is not the last book but i am old enough to realize that there is more road behind me than there is in front. i loved my career.
one of the setpoints is this will be near the end of my career. it will -- nine people distrust the press but i think it is one of the greatest careers anybody can have. i reflect it on the fact that what are we other than our stories? memories fade and people die and the job of the journalist is to go run and collect those stories while they are still in people's minds. trying to string them together in some kind of way. you make these immortal. it is a humble task. at the same time, what a privilege to be given a person's story, that is the most import thing that ever happened to them.
to trust him to handle it in a caring manner. to me, that has always been a challenge and a great reward. host: the latest book by lawrence wright is "the plague year: america in the time of covid." thank you for spending an hour with c-span. lawrence: it has been my pleasure, susan. >> all q&a programs are available on our website. >> we are funded by these television companies and more including charter telecommunications.
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miller on covert burnout -- covid burnout. be sure to join our discussion with phone calls, facebook comments, text messages and tweets. washington journal is next. ♪ host: for many years through many congresses and presidents, the last week of september has always been crunch time. fraught with uncertainties, the fiscal year ends september 30 and the federal government faces the possibility of a shutdown if new spending is not in -- not approved. this year brings added democratic deadlines to pass a package on infrastructure and a three point $5 trillion further social program spending bill. top priorities of president biden. the morning and welcome to washington journal. it is sick,