Pandemic warnings existed long before coronavirus hit US, experts say

Government reports over the past several years and a mock exercise warned of the likelihood that a pandemic could hit the U.S. and cautioned the U.S. may not be prepared for it.
12:50 | 04/30/20

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Transcript for Pandemic warnings existed long before coronavirus hit US, experts say
I stand before you today. The risk of contracting the coronavirus to the American public remains low, and the risk of serious disease among the American public also remains low. It will go away. Just stay calm. We're in great shape compared to other places. We are in really good shape. Reporter: On march26, the United States became the epicenter of the covid-19 outbreak. More confirmed cases than anywhere else on the planet. This was something that nobody has ever thought could happen to this country. Reporter: As of today, more Americans are dead from the virus than the number of soldiers killed in the Vietnam war. They are our children. Our health care heroes. Our teachers. Our mothers and fathers. And our elderly. Nobody is immune to this virus. It's an unforeseen problem. This came out of nowhere, nobody can imagine this even happened. Reporter: Despite those statements from our commander in chief, an ABC analysis of government reports and public statements shows there were numerous missed signals that a catastrophic pandemic was all but inevitable. We missed signals. We have to be honest. It's not any one individual's fault. If you go back three administrations, president Clinton, president bush, president Obama all expressed concern about an infectious disease outbreak, but none did anything consequential to really get us ready for what we're now facing. Reporter: Former senator Joe Lieberman is co-chair of the bipartisan commission on biodefense. In 2015 they issued a report. Stating that the nation is dangerously vulnerable to a biological event. We're like Paul revere of the modern infectious disease age. But, you know, unlike the British that Paul revere was warning about, people couldn't see it. The signals have been blinking red on emerging infectious diseases for probably two decades. Reporter: Dr. Ellen Carlin has spent her career studying the epidemically. We have understood the actions that could lead to a pandemic at the scale of a it was a failure to act on that information. That's part of the reason this is so frustrating. It was totally predictable. Reporter: Predictable and fully imagined. Two years ago, experts and officials role played scenarios remarkably similar to what we're experiencing now. It is unprecedented. Reporter: It was called plate X hosted by Johns Hopkins featured an actual fake newscast. At least three of the dead were health care workers. Reporter: Officials standing in as high-level decision-makers. They're having trouble handling this number of critically ill patients. We really need a rapid diagnostic. One year to produce a vaccine for this is too long. I want the American people to know that our government has been thinking about this, has been preparing for this for decades. Reporter: Congresswoman Susan brooks, one of the leading voices took part in the exercise. Was there ever a moment that you were scared, my god, what if this happens? Oh, yes, I absolutely did have that moment and it came fairly early, because we saw the numbers increasing so fast. Reporter: She even spotted a potential issue with ppe. We know we don't have enough protective gear to continue to serve our health care workers. Reporter: Why don't you think there wasn't more of an effort to have a stockpile? We've learned that our supply of these products is made in China. And so, when China shuts down, and when China has a problem, that can impede our supply. Reporter: The group also discussed how to communicate the threat to the American public. There's as great a danger in terms of public confidence if we are perceived as underestimating this, and then it becomes something that the average person thinks of as an epidemic that threatens their lives. Reporter: President trump initially down-played the soarousness of the threat like he did on CNBC. The words about a pandemic at this point? No, we're not at all. And we have it totally under Reporter: But sources tell ABC news that intelligence about a mysterious contagion in China was presented to the white house in early January. And by February, trump's trade adviser, Peter Navarro wrote two memos, cautioning that it could cost the U.S. Economy millions of dollars and claim half a million lives. But the president's comments didn't reflect those warnings. It's a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle. It will disappear. And from our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. Could maybe go away. We'll see what happens. Nobody really knows. Reporter: The ladex exercise left participants with a sobering analysis. We haven't done the kind of thoughtful analysis of how we manage a crisis before it starts. It is a national security issue that we are not treating like a national security issue, and it's not going to go away. Reporter: Is this something that it's hard to get congress to stay focussed on? It is very hard, because it is again something we haven't really experienced in our lifetimes. We didn't have any hearings, particularly, during this year, which is disappointing. I wish we had. It's not to blame. We can't go back. But, you know, I would say this was not our focus no January. Reporter: Mm-hm. It should have been. Reporter: A congressional oversight committee discussed the disastrous results of ladex. Lack of preparation is not an option. Obviously, we've got to do more to be prepared for these types of outbreaks. Reporter: It's unclear whether president trump or his top aides were informed about the exercise, but there were 8 other alarm bells including worldwide assessments flagging pandemics as a major threat to the United States. A 2019 exercise revealing deficiencies with vaccine development and critical supplies, noting capacity will not be sufficient to meet demand. And this report, released just two days before trump declared a national emergency, warning that the country's lack of coordination around pandemic planning and preparation could limit the success of the national biodefense strategy. For the outbreak of covid, that there was no single leader in charge of the entire biodefense enterprise which spans as many as two dozen agencies, and there was no one person with eyes on that spending. And with eyes on those strategic priorities for what that spending should be doing. Reporter: One of the casualties of that fragmented funding? Inadequate supplies of ppe and ventilators. If the whole of government had coalesced around understanding what our vulnerabilities are, that would have been revealed. Reporter: And it wasn't just government officials who missed some of the medical and scientific community also seemed to miss key moments. Slow to understand the insidiousness of covid-19. There's clearly been a break down in our United States public health infrastructure. And the CDC is at the top of that food chain. At this time in the U.S., this virus is not spreading in the community. For that reason, we continue to believe that the immediate health risk from the new virus to the general American public is low at this time. The risk to any average American is low from the novel coronavirus. Reporter: Those assurances coming days after Chinese officials issue add lockdown of Wuhan, putting more than 11 million people into quarantine. All the history of respiratory-borne viruses of any type, asymptomatic transmission, has never been the driver of outbreaks. The driver of outbreaks is always a symptomatic person. Reporter: But asymptomatic transmission along with those with mild symptoms may have been literal jet fuel to the explosive spread of covid-19. An ABC news investigation of travel data from December, January and February found nearly 760,000 passengers came to the U.S. From China. While over 2.5 million travelers from hotspots like Italy, Spain and Britain poured in. With most infectious diseases you have to consider the possibility that people who aren't showing signs can be spreading the virus. And it's a bit mysterious to me why there wasn't an acknowledgement that that was at least a possibility. Reporter: The president's restriction on travel between the U.S. And China was announced on January 31st. Something he continues to tout. I think we did something well ahead of schedule. I think we've done a great job in the sense that we were early. There was actually community transmission happening in the United States in early January. The travel restrictions didn't go into effect until late january/early February. By that point, coronavirus was probably all over the united States. That decision by the president to close off travel was a recognition that something awful was happening. Reporter: Yet that same day. We still have a low risk to the American public. I want to emphasize that this is a serious health situation in China, but I want to emphasize that the risk to the American public currently is low. I want to stress the risk of infection for Americans remains low. Reporter: It was the end of February before the medical and scientific community began to publicly acknowledge community spread was coming. A CDC official telling the press on February 25th. Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exact exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness. Reporter: But several more weeks would go by before the U.S. Would go into lockdown. One of the themes we've seen over the last three or four months with this administration is that they have lost time in really important ways. And that unfortunately translates to a much higher burden of disease and higher fatality rate. Reporter: As the trump administration in some states began to shift toward economic recovery, there's still questions about how to treat covid-19. No national testing program or vaccine. We essentially have the same tools available to us today in 2020 as we did in 1918, when we were facing the great influenza. This is unbelievable to me that 100 years could have gone by, and all we have to offer is wash your hands and keep your distance from each other. It's unconscionable to me that we have not developed a strategic vision for what public health security needs to look like in the 21st century. We need to create a bipartisan independent commission outside of the administration, outside of congress to take a look, deep look, at how this happened as best as possible. Tell us how to make sure it doesn't happen again. We should note we requested an interview with health and human services secretary Alex Azar, that request is still under consideration.

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

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