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What the pandemic taught us about American preparedness

Dr. Sanjay Gupta
 

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COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over 5 million people globally and nearly 750,000 Americans. While questions about its origins still exist, the world has learned a lot about how it evolves, and gained insight into preparing for future pandemics. Judy Woodruff discusses the same with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, author of “World War C: Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic and How to Prepare for the Next One.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Late next month, it will be two years since China confirmed a mysterious new virus was behind a cluster of pneumonia-like infections in the city of Wuhan.

    As of today, that virus, COVID-19, has claimed the lives of over five million people worldwide and nearly 750,000 Americans.

    Many questions about the virus still exist, but much more is known as well.

    We see that in a new book by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, “World War C: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic and How to Prepare for the Next One.” In it, he has insights about the last two years and some optimism about the future.

    And Dr. Gupta joins us now.

    Sanjay Gupta, welcome.

    Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Author, “World War C: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic and How to Prepare for the Next One”: What a pleasure, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Welcome to the “NewsHour.” We’re used to seeing you on CNN, so we appreciate your joining us to talk about the book.

    You end this book on hope, and you talk about the fight for the future, but you also have a sobering message throughout. And that is that — in fact, you quote experts as saying that this could be just a dress rehearsal, that many of us in our lifetime are going to see another pandemic.

    Why do they believe that?

  • Dr. Sanjay Gupta:

    Well, I think what most people believe when they look at these emerging pathogens is that these jumps of pathogen from animal to human are happening more and more frequently.

    Part of that is because the population of humans is increasing. We’re increasingly encroaching on animal habitats. And that’s where the majority of these new pathogens come from. So that’s likely to happen.

    I think the — that’s the part of that I think alarms people. But I think the optimistic part is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that those emerging pathogens have to turn into pandemics. I think that’s what really struck me over the last year-and-a-half, Judy, just talking to experts all over the world.

    This idea that we could essentially become pandemic-proof, I think, became — first, it sounded audacious to me, but became increasingly real. Those jumps may happen but they don’t have to turn into what happened here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    And you do spell out mistakes that were made by even developed countries like the United States, that we assume would have known better. What were some of the big mistakes you have seen and what are the prescriptions for avoiding them in the future?

  • Dr. Sanjay Gupta:

    You know, I will tell you, I will preface by saying, Judy, that, pre-pandemic, the United States was listed, according to these indices, as the best prepared country in the world, wealthy country, lots of resources.

    And we all know how that turned out. There were times when we had the highest numbers of cases, certainly per capita, but overall in the world.

    I think there was a couple of sort of very specific mistakes, then more philosophical mistakes. I think one thing was just testing. In order to really diagnose a problem in medicine, whether an individual patient or be a societal pandemic, you have to understand what you’re dealing with.

    And I think, with this particular pandemic, for lots of different reasons, we simply weren’t testing. We did not do testing early enough, and even when the tests rolled out, in part because they were flawed and for some other reasons, we simply didn’t have enough widespread testing.

    And frankly, Judy, it’s still a problem now. In the fall of 2021, this many months into the pandemic, it’s still very hard to get a clear idea of just how widespread the problem is. If I were to ask a simple question, how many people have been exposed to COVID in the United States, you will get lofts different answers from different experts. That’s a big problem.

    I think a second big one was, if you looked at the data coming out of Wuhan at a time when they were saying, hey, look we think things aren’t that bad, it’s not — doesn’t appear to be spreading human to human, at the same time, they were also shutting down a city of 11 million people.

    And that should have been a really significant clue that this was not only spreading, but it seemed to be spreading asymptomatically, meaning people didn’t even have symptoms, they didn’t know they were sick, and yet they were still spreading. And that should have really been a clear indicator that masks were going to be necessary.

    So we didn’t start leaning into masks in the United States until later in the spring, whereas other countries, including China, including South Korea, many countries in that part of the world were doing masks much earlier. Those were specific things.

    But, philosophically, like you alluded to, when you live in a wealthy country, I think a lot of times you have this belief that we can wait for the home run hit, we can run for the knockout punch, we don’t have to do these simple things, we can just do the big thing when it comes. And the big thing was the vaccine.

    But as a result of waiting so long, I think we missed a lot of opportunities to, sadly, Judy, just very sadly, to have prevented a lot of deaths, and I mean hundreds of thousands of deaths potentially prevented. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Sanjay Gupta on his book.

    And we will have the rest of my conversation with him tomorrow on the “NewsHour.”

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