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As expected, I got feedback from my opinions on Trump's handling of the covid-19 epidemic. Most focused on how the world and media are "over-reacting" to a disease that has killed relatively few compared to the flu or prior viral epidemics. The flu doesn't cause a 5,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Index. Why all the hysteria over a virus that, for most, will only cause the sniffles and a cough?

Let's use terrorism as an analogy. In the 1990s, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, killing six people. Al-Qaeda terrorists drove truck bombs toward U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in 1995 in Oklahoma City, killing 168. The USS Cole was bombed in 2000, killing 17 sailors. Responses to all these attacks were minimal and restrained, in hindsight. They were warnings of worse things to come and it did on Sept. 11, 2001. We were caught unprepared and by surprise, though many in the field tried to tell their superiors that such an attack was imminent. But most didn't want to hear that such a thing could happen to Americans.

Covid-19 isn't going to kill a lot of Americans. The virus is an unknown, which makes it dangerous, but the effects it produces aren't that bad, unless you are one of the unfortunates that succumb to it. But, like all the smaller terrorist attacks that led up to the really big one on 9/11, there are other, much worse, viruses out there. Some we know, such as Ebola, with an average mortality rate of 50 percent. First identified in 1976, a vaccine was just developed in 2019, more than 40 years later. Vaccines are difficult to produce and there are no assurances that they can be made quickly. Other viral outbreaks, such as SARS and MERS, have occurred as well. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is caused by a coronavirus. It caused an epidemic in 2003, killing hundreds in the U.S. It ran its course, causing some concern, but gradually went away over the next several years. In that time, funding was initiated for vaccine research. A potential SARS vaccine exists in a freezer at Baylor College of Medicine. But it was shelved before it could go through clinical trials, because hygiene and environmental factors ended the epidemic. People forgot about it, funding dried up, and research was ceased. The famous short American attention span focused on other things. We didn't worry about pandemics for awhile. Then, middle east respiratory syndrome, or MERS, another type of coronavirus, cropped up in 2012. Over 2000 cases have been reported, with about one-third dying. It was confined to Saudi Arabia, South Korea, but two cases were reported in the U.S., one in Indiana in 2014 and another in Florida in 2015. There are no known treatments for MERS. Once out of the news, funding for further research was cut, which could have provided valuable information for covid-19 treatment.

President Trump's first budget proposed to cut $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health, and $900 million from the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The budget would eliminate the Fogarty International Center, a program focused on research on Ebola, HIV, dengue fever, and other health problems. Luckily, the House of Representatives overruled the cuts. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in reference to the cuts, "I promise you the president is much more likely in his term to have to deal with a pandemic than an act of terrorism. I hope he doesn't have to deal with either one, but you have to be ready to deal with both." Those prophetic words were said nearly three years ago. But Trump continues to push budgets with huge slashes in funding health care research, education, environmental safeguards and social-insurance programs. Even in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak Russ Vought, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, continued to put forth cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to other health services offices.

In the past, when confronted with a problem, the U.S. focused on concentrated efforts to find a solution. Polio is a rarity today. The Manhattan Project produced nuclear weapons. America put men on the moon. Civil rights laws were finally passed. All these milestones required determined and focused action by experts in their respective fields. They were led by politicians who knew their own limits but recognized the expertise of others. Solutions were found.

The countries of Senegal and South Korea are leading the world in responding to covid-19. Senegal scientists, who started setting up testing in early February, developed a handheld coronavirus test kit that diagnoses covid-19 within 10 minutes. It takes a week or more for Americans to find the results of their testing. South Korea is testing 15,000 people every day while as of March 9 only 4400 Americans had been tested. Trump tells the public that "testing has been going very smooth."

Today we have a president more interested in playing the victim, constantly whining that everyone and everything is against him, than attempting to find answers to difficult problems. If Trump spent more time seeking solutions, and less time golfing, tweeting, and name-calling, perhaps the public would have a little more trust that things will be fine. The financial markets confirm the lack of confidence in this administration. Continue with the paranoia, the emphasis on yourself over country, and keep demonizing anyone with thoughts that differ from your own, Mr. President. It's easier than the hard work required to lead effectively.

-- Devin Houston is the president/CEO of Houston Enzymes. Send comments or questions to [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 03/18/2020

Print Headline: Viral epidemics

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