During holiday celebrations, deadly virus was already on the march

U.S. health officials saw an email alert on New Year’s Eve that would become the nightmare they had all trained for. The government launched into action but the virus was already in Central China.
8:27 | 07/29/20

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Transcript for During holiday celebrations, deadly virus was already on the march
We are always at threat for the next pandemic. These viruses exist out in nature. As people go out in nature they get infected and then move their way back into humans. If we were to imagine the origins of covid-19 as a movie, it would begin at the end of the contagion movie. Exactly that process of bulldozing down the forest, bats flying off infecting livestock that then we get infected. That happens every day, every week. That's how these things begin. With you Wuhan is a major hub on the wildlife trade pathway. It's close to hot spot areas for new coronaviruses. Ever since the covid pandemic hit, we've been trying to determine if anybody knew anything about a contagion sweeping through Wuhan last fall and when did they know it. Researchers looked at satellite photos of Wuhan hospitals in October of 2019. And what they show are packed parking lots. All those red dots are cars. And we took those photos and we put 'em next to October of 2018. Mirror images. And you can clearly see in some cases there are 50% to 90% more cars. That shows that those hospitals were busy during this time. Then they found another clue when they looked at baidu, that's the Google search engine for China. During this time, there was an increase in searches for terms like "Cough" and "Diarrhea," two symptoms of covid-19. Now, this is three months before China announces that they have a problem with the coronavirus. Clearly, something was happening in Wuhan. On the 29th of October, we flew to Wuhan to start the river part of the cruise on the yangtze. We were very excited. We had not ever been to Wuhan. At the time, it seemed weird. The treatment of us, on this particular city, was different than other cities we'd been in on this tour. We're lined up to get onto the ship. They really emphasized, "Stay in line. You don't have time to go wander anywhere." And once we were on the ship, nobody was allowed to get off. Having 150 western tourists from the uk, Australia, Canada, United States get sick and trace back to Wuhan might have not been a good idea. We were immediately told that we would be leaving and -- bing, bang, boom. We were gone. 3, 2, 1, happy new ar! So I was at home with my wife and a couple of friends. We were cooking a dinner and celebrating the new year's. I was snuggled on the couch with my sons watching the ball drop in New York. They say close to a million and a half people gathered here tonight. It was the first time, in a long time, that I had an opportunity to get my whole family back together. And I did get a phone call from my colleagues at CDC, that there was a mysterious new pneumonia that appeared not to be flu. We have a brand new virus that's jumped species from an animal to a human. And immediately, that was an alarm bell. It was clear the threat was real. The threat was serious. But on new year's eve, if someone had told me a pandemic was coming, that wouldn't have surprised me. The world was overdue for one. And that's what's always kept me up at night. It is the perfect storm, and my worst nightmare. At the end of 2019 into 2020, the trump white house wasn't focused on a global pandemic. But frankly, nobody was in Washington. We do have breaking news tonight, president trump has just been impeached. First of all, the president had just been impeached. We were going into an impeachment trial. Quite frankly, we were focused on Iran that first week. The stunning sight, millions of Iranians taking to the streets demanding revenge for the killing of their top military leader. There is a lot going on that is consuming all attention, the president's attention, the Democrats' attention in congress, the military's attention -- beyond a global pandemic. Chinese health authorities are still working to identify the virus behind a pneumonia outbreak in the central city of There were reports of unexplained pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China and they were images of people in hazmat suits spraying down a seafood market. It kind of gave me a bit of a chill. Reading about people being locked into apartment buildings, streets being closed off, entire streets being cord onned. That is a signal of how serious this pathogen was. Happy new year. Happy new year. We're going to have a great year. As we ring in the new year, president trump is in Florida at mar-a-lago. When we wrote up our first situation report on January 1st, I had my first meetings to discuss this with the national security council on January 2nd. What's not publicly known is that behind the scenes, in the presidential daily brief, there's information being put in telling the president that there's something strange happening in the Wuhan region of China. We felt that this had potential to be a very serious situation that had national security implications. Dr. Redfield at the CDC, he's on the phone with Dr. Fauci. It was ding, bing, back and forth. Both of us agreed that this looks, smells, and almost certainly is a new coronavirus. And the question is what are we going to do about it. Is this a pathogen that goes from animals to humans, or is this a pathogen that went from human to human? Bob was trying to get information in real time exactly what was going on over there. The frustration is that he wanted to get his team there and to go to Wuhan and find out what was going on. But the Chinese were not allowing that. I had strongly suggested that we send some CDC folks in to help out. And the president actually made the request to the president of China that we be able to come and assist. And the Chinese are stonewalling. They're not letting them have access to the key sites. We had literally, you know, 20, 30 people ready to go. The fact that they were not allowed to go there in realtime and see what was going on was very disconcerting to us. So on January 8th, the CDC issues its first health alert connected to the pandemic. And president trump heads to Ohio, where he holds this big rally. Make America great again. No, the president didn't publicly predict any danger. And America's future has never ever looked brighter, ever. In early January, China hasn't released the genome, or the genetic map of the virus. You need the genome of the virus to develop tests and drugs and vaccines, and there were significant delays in sharing it with the world. On January 12th, the Chinese government, after resisting American requests for information, releases the genetic sequence of the virus. All right, all hands on deck. We gotta make a vaccine 'cause we don't know where this is going. There's a lot of unknowns. It was just a matter of time before it arrived in the united States. To think otherwise would be completely naive.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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