What happened when former federal officials sounded the alarm on COVID-19: Part 1

In January and February, a group of former public health and national security officials privately encouraged Trump administration officials to heed warnings of an impending disaster.
10:16 | 07/29/20

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Transcript for What happened when former federal officials sounded the alarm on COVID-19: Part 1
We are always at threat for the next pandemic. A mysterious new virus appearing in China. Chinese health authorities are still working to identify the virus behind a pneumonia outbreak in the central city of Wuhan. You have a brand-new virus that jumped species from animal to human. Concern rising. There were a number of people raising red flags. As covid-19 rapidly spread around the world and arrived in the U.S. It is the perfect storm and my worst nightmare. Tonight we go inside an American catastrophe. We now have the greatest public health failure in our nation's history. How did we get here? Ever since the covid pandemic hit we're trying to determine if any one knew anything about a contagion sweeping through Wuhan last year. Everybody at the state, local, there's a lot of blood to go around for the lack of response for this disease. The end of 2019 into 2020, the trump white house wasn't focussed on a global pandemic, but frankly, nobody was in Washington. There were images emerging from China of people in hazmat suits, spraying down seafood market, kind of gave me a little bit of a chill. Reading about people being locked into apartment buildings, streets being closed off. Entire cities cordoned, that is a signal of how serious this pathogen was. 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. It had national security implications. Dr. Redfield at the CDC, he's on the phone with Dr. Fauci. It was bing bing, back and forth. Both of us agree this looks smells and almost certainly is a new coronavirus. And the question is, what are we going to do about did? Bob was trying to get real 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 president of China that we'd be able to come and assist. Fact that they were not allowed to go there in real time and see what was going on was very disconcerting to us. It was just a matter of time before it arrived in the united States. To think otherwise would be completely nave. On January 15th, a man landed at the Seattle airport. He was in his 30s. No preexisting medical problems. He traveled to visit family in Wuhan, China. After a few days of feeling poorly at home he came to one of our clinics. He said basically, I recently traveled to Wuhan, I have a cough and fever and am concerned I might have coronavirus. We were not allowed to test at state public health and local public health departments were not able to test either. So if we wanted a patient tested we had to first receive approval or clearance from the CDC. We had to make a case that the patient met their very strict criteria. So patient zero, his sample had to be flown overnight to a CDC lab in Atlanta, and he was told to quarantine. He was sent home. The test results would come back positive. Covid-19 was officially on American soil. But the administration would continue to say that this was a problem overseas. We have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China. And we have it under control. It's going to be just fine. January was really our opportunity as a country to contain this virus before it spread like wildfire. And that opportunity was missed. In reality, the U.S. Government had been planning for a pandemic going back to president George W. Bush. 2005 he read a book about the 1918 flu that killed as many as 100 million people. And he sees them talking about how these pandemics happen every hundred years or something. You have something massive like this. And he's looking at the calendar. President bush knows personal experience that things he did not anticipate can happen and can cause severe damage and kill a lot of people. 9/11, Katrina, could the next big one be a global pandemic? By then we'd already had the sars experience. And then so-called bird flu, which was pretty scary. That's a pretty good reason to get your attention. He challenged us to come up with a government-wide national, not just federal government, strategy for dealing with it, should it happen. The president of the united States. They get congress to appropriate money, real money, $7 million. If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. One day many live Kos be needlessly lost because we failed to act today. Tonight, outbreak, the new and deadly strain of flu. The Obama administration has to deal with an outbreak almost immediately after Obama becomes president. Every American should know that their entire government is taking the utmost precautions. Ebola. An outbreak of a disease so fierce, so deadly, even the word strikes terror. This scares the hell out of everybody. President Obama, vice president Biden have authorized unprecedented whole of government response to the ebola crisis. When I was winding up my work on ebola, I met with the president and said to him, we need to build a permanent structure at the white house. The funding we're asking for is to deal with future outbreaks. And he set up a pandemic office in the national security council to get us ready for that more deadly, more dangerous, more rapidly spreading epidemic that was going to come to this country someday. Donald Trump takes office. He has some people in his national security apparatus who served under president bush who see this also as a significant issue. More turnover in this white house than any other administration in recent history. The challenge is when you have had as many turnovers in this administration, a lot of that work that would have been done during the transition has been lost. But eventually, president trump's third national security adviser, John Bolton, decides to do away with the section of the national security council that specifically deals with pandemics. Just eliminates it. Now the trump administration says they were just streamlining the national security council and that some of those staffers were reassigned but continued to work on the issue of pandemic preparedness. In February, the president attempts to slow the spread of the virus, banning travel to and The U.S. Is closing the door to slow the spread of novel coronavirus. It was a good idea to do travel restriction from China, because it was clear that that's the source that was seeding us. Truth is, that travel ban was probably already too late when it was put into place. As February develops, the president proceeds to downplay the virus. You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat. But behind the scenes, a group of people, current and former senior federal government officials, top doctors, are engaged in a series of e-mail chains called red dawn. The red dawn group ultimately becomes fixated on a cruise ship in the far east, the "Diamond princess," because of an outbreak of the coronavirus on board. Reading from the red dawn e-mail chain, which Dr. Carter mecher noted, the number is now up to 136. When there is a pathogen like this, the CDC sets out to develop a test. Which they did, and they did it in record time, seven to ten days. And initially, we flooded with relief. We can test. They immediately came across a problem. The initial samples that came from the CDC didn't work. So they had to call them back. So the CDC had to sent out a second batch of test kits which also had a problem. As the weeks ticked by, we running out of time to contain the spread of this virus, and we knew it. We could have brought in the gigantic manufacturers of diagnostic tests, and other failure to take that approach with a homegrown test out of CDC has cost us lives. I don't think CDC will manufacture tests in the future. I think what we'll do is contract a manufacturer to manufacture the test. Without a doubt, February was a lost month for this nation's response. This is pretty much the most critical time in the outbreak for us to be flying blind. In an outbreak scenario, every day matters. Our chances to contain this virus were gone.

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

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