Watch “COVID WAR: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out” at 8 p.m. Friday, April 2 on CNN. The special report will also be available on demand, on CNNgo and CNN mobile apps.
In a new CNN special report “COVID WAR: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta spoke to six leading US health officials about their experiences responding to the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
For the first time, free from the watchful eyes of the Trump White House, the top doctors – Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Brett Giroir, Dr. Stephen Hahn, Dr. Robert Kadlec and Dr. Robert Redfield – were ready to talk.
Here are 10 things they revealed.
1. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he would have been horrified if he knew a year ago that 500,000 Americans would eventually lose their lives to Covid-19.
“I would have been horrified that that was even a possibility,” Fauci said.
Asked if there was a moment when he knew the danger was going to be big, Fauci said “When I saw what happened in New York City, almost overrunning of our health care system, it was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ “
“That’s when it became very clear that the decision we made on January the 10th – to go all out and develop a vaccine – may have been the best decision that I’ve ever made with regard to an intervention as director of the institute.”
2. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator under Trump, said the majority of those deaths could have been prevented.
“I look at it this way – the first time we have an excuse. There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge,” Birx said. “All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”
The US has now seen more than 548,000 Covid-19 deaths.
3. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under Trump, said he believes the novel coronavirus began transmitting in the fall of 2019 and may have originated in a lab in China.
Redfield cited no evidence. The “lab leak” theory has been cited in pandemic conspiracies, including in statements from Trump.
“I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely aetiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory. You know, escaped. Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out,” Redfield said, noting that this may not have been intentional.
A World Health Organization team is exploring the origins of the virus in Wuhan, China, and has noted that it is “extremely unlikely” that a lab-related incident spurred the global pandemic.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials and state media have promoted an unsubstantiated, so-called “multiple-origin” theory, suggesting the pandemic may have started in various locations around the world, even a US military lab.
Redfield said there could have been a significant benefit to having US investigators on the ground in China to study the coronavirus early in the pandemic.
“I think we could have learned very quickly that we’re dealing with a different beast than the one that everyone had sold us,” Redfield said.
“A year after this pathogen started, we’re now having a critical analysis of where it came from by scientists,” he added. “That just seems a little delayed. I mean, it seems to me that some of the information is people are not being transparent about it. I could use the word ‘cover up,’ but I don’t know that so I’m not going to speculate that.”
China has denied any cover up.
“They sold us: ‘This is like SARS.’ ‘This is like flu.’ Well, SARS and flu, you can go after symptomatic case findings because they cause symptomatic disease,” Redfield said. “Unfortunately, this virus, probably a majority of its transmission is in the non-symptomatic stage.”
Fauci also revealed that he “always had skepticism” about the Covid-19 data being reported out of China.
“I always had skepticism about it because of what we went through with SARS,” Fauci said
“China was saying, ‘Oh it’s flu, it’s flu.’ And then the next thing you know, SARS was all over the world – in Canada, in Australia, all over the place,” he added. “So, they were not very transparent in the past. It wasn’t outright lying. They just didn’t give you all the information.
4. Birx joined the White House coronavirus task force, in part, because she wanted the Trump administration to stop playing down the risk that Covid-19 posed to Americans.
She said she saw the damage that the virus had done in Europe and knew the US would not be spared.
“So, now you know why I came to the White House,” Birx said. “Because I could see the avalanche coming, and I could see that we were not prepared, and I thought I could do something.”
Birx was not able to do quite as much as she had hoped. After speaking out in August about the coronavirus pandemic being “extraordinarily widespread” across both rural and urban communities in the US, Birx received a call from former President Trump, after which she says she was blocked from speaking about the pandemic nationally.
“I got called by the President. It was very uncomfortable, very direct and very difficult to hear,” Birx said.
Asked if President Trump threatened her, Birx said “I would say it was a very uncomfortable conversation.”
CNN has reached out to Trump’s office for comment on the documentary.
Birx said she took her public warnings about the pandemic to a local level.
She said she would speak frankly “with regional and local press and governors and mayors – and be very clear about mask mandates and closing bars and severely restricting indoor dining and all of these elements that I was never allowed to say nationally.
Asked if she was being censored, Birx said “Clearly someone was blocking me from doing it. My understanding is I could not be national because the President might see it.”
She added “He felt very strongly that I misrepresented the pandemic in the United States, that I made it out to be much worse than it is. I feel like I didn’t even make it out as bad as it was.”
5. Dr. Robert Kadlec, former US assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under Trump, and Admiral Brett Giroir, the US Health and Human Services assistant secretary under Trump, said the state of the US emergency supply chain of personal protective gear, medicines, ventilators and other medical equipment was a mystery at the beginning of the pandemic.
“When we started the pandemic in January, we really didn’t know what the status of the supply chain was. We didn’t know what hospitals had on hand. We didn’t know what the state supplies were. We didn’t even know what the commercial distributors had on their shelves,” Kadlec said.
Giroir said the nation had to start “from scratch.”
“We had no systems in place. The way to find out how many ventilators were being used is to call up and see. Well, who are the manufacturers? We don’t know,” Giroir said. “What’s the supply chain? We don’t know. How many tests do we have in the stockpile? Well, there was no test in the stockpile. How many swabs do we have? We didn’t have a single swab. So all of this was starting from scratch.”
6. Birx said there were too many streams of data presented to Trump about the coronavirus pandemic, which may have had an impact on policy decisions that were – or were not – made.
She said that some of those data streams stemmed from Trump’s controversial coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas, who she eventually refused to attend meetings with, because she did not want to legitimize his position.
“At one time, the President looked at the data and understood the data because he wouldn’t have shut down the country for 15 days and then another 30 – but that never really happened again, because there were too many parallel streams of data” Birx said.
7. Fauci said Trump’s push to reopen the nation early in the pandemic, against the recommendations of doctors and health experts, was like a punch to the chest.
“The thing that hit me like a punch to the chest was then all of a sudden he got up and says, ‘liberate Virginia,’ ‘liberate Michigan,’ and I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, what is going on here?’ It shocked me because it was such a jolt to what we were trying to do,” Fauci said.
Fauci’s account is in line with statements made by Birx.
“The one policy directive he gave to me in April, which was the last time I really had any briefing with him in that kind of way, was, ‘We will never shut the country down again,’” Birx said.
8. Redfied and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration under Trump, spoke about a challenging – and at times, contentious – relationship with former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
“I didn’t have really very difficult challenges with the White House. The challenges I had were with the office of the Secretary,” Redfield said. “I think some of the ones that were the most notable, that I was the most offended by, was the calls that wanted me to pressure and change the MMWR.”
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The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report or MMWR is the agency’s published roundup of important research and recommendations. Redfield said that he was asked to change the MMWR “on more than one occasion.”
Azar responded in a statement to CNN saying, “Any suggestion that I pressured or otherwise asked Dr. Redfield to change the content of a single scientific, peer-reviewed MMWR article is false.”
Hahn addressed reports that he and Azar once had a shouting match.
“I can 100% assure you that I did not shout and scream at the Secretary of Health and Human Services,” said Hahn. When asked if Azar shouted at Hahn, Hahn replied, “You should ask him that question.”
In a statement to CNN, Azar said, “the only intemperate conduct” on that call “was Dr. Hahn’s threat to resign.”
In a response to Azar’s statement, Hahn said: “I did not yell on that phone call, and I did not threaten to resign.”
9. Fauci, Birx, Hahn and Redfield formed their own “doctors’ group” when the White House task force meetings stalled.
“We weren’t secret about it. We were pretty open about it. It’s just that not very many people knew about it,” Fauci said.
“By that time, the task force was irregularly meeting,” he added. “That was particularly when the campaign started and that’s when we started with the doctors’ group.”
Birx described the group as “important,” because her colleagues were attending House and Senate briefings.
“I wanted them armed with everything that I could give them,” Birx said, referring to data.
10. Birx said that all of the doctors who served on Trump’s White House coronavirus task force received death threats.
“All the doctors received death threats,” Birx said.
“My daughters got the same rude text messages. I mean, you can’t even imagine what those text messages looked like,” she added. “A lot of sexual references, saying, ‘The country would be better off if you were dead.’ ‘You’re misleading the country.’ ‘Your tongue should be cut out.’”
Birx said that she originally would take the threats to the State Department, but eventually she “didn’t have time.”
Fauci also has spoken about the intimidation and harassment he and his family faced, which led him to beef up his security force.