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America needs to listen to its national scientists

Much of the current public health crisis could have been avoided had the U.S. government listened to scientists who not only raised early concerns about the spread of coronavirus, but recognized that a federal resource to manage an epidemic response was critical to the safety of Americans.

In late January, when the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Washington (state), researchers realized the need for aggressive testing. Dr. Helen Chu and a team of Seattle-based infectious disease experts had been collecting nasal swab samples for a flu study for several months. They requested permission from state and federal officials to repurpose these samples to test for coronavirus. They were denied.

When testing finally was administered weeks later, it confirmed the scientist’s suspicion: coronavirus had been circulating in the Seattle area for weeks without any preventative measures undertaken by authorities. Had these researchers been given the green light to test early, the nation would have been better equipped to prevent viral transmission.

The path to this pandemic is littered with missed opportunities to take preventative action, and failures to heed the many warnings from experts. We still lack the necessary testing capabilities and medical supplies like ventilators and masks. Worse yet, there is still a concerning lack of coordination between federal, state, and local authorities, and a worrying disconnect between the professional advice of experts and the statements made by the executive branch.

While experts like CDC director Robert Redfield, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams deliver dire warnings and serious advice to the American public, the president continues to spew dangerous misinformation. The president’s failure to grasp the gravity of the situation and make responsible decisions costs American lives.

Had the federal government heeded the many warnings issued by scientists leading up to this pandemic, the nation could have slowed viral transmission and protected people. Had the National Security Council’s pandemic-response team not been dismantled in 2018, we would have a federal organization of experts set up specifically to manage a situation like this.

Retrospective finger pointing will not cure either the pandemic or the incompetence of federal leadership which plague our country. But perhaps we can learn something from our mistakes. If there is one crucial lesson to be drawn from this crisis, it is the importance of listening to scientists and preparing for the future.

Scientists have long warned of the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation. They continually provide evidence demonstrating that our irresponsible practices and unchecked resource consumption are responsible for mass human suffering. Sea level rise, severe weather, air and water pollution, food scarcity, and more novel diseases are all challenges that we will face in the near future. Although these problems are less immediate than coronavirus, if we fail to prepare, they will be devastating.

With patience, vigilance, and intelligent decision-making, America will weather the storm of coronavirus. We must learn an important lesson from our mistakes. If the United States is to succeed in the future, our government must make data-driven, fact-based decisions, and prepare for future environmental and natural challenges.

Nick Wilson is a junior at Boston College and is studying environmental sciences.

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