Newsletter: How a pandemic prediction program ended

Months before the discovery of the deadly coronavirus in China, the Trump administration ended a program that helped laboratories around the world detect viruses that could spread from animals to humans and cause the next global pandemic.
(AFP via Getty Images)

In September, the Trump administration ended a 10-year-old pandemic early-warning program to detect coronaviruses.


How a Pandemic Prediction Program Ended

Two months before the novel coronavirus is thought to have begun its deadly advance in Wuhan, China, the Trump administration ended a $200-million pandemic early-warning program aimed at training scientists in China and other countries to detect and respond to such a threat.


The project, launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2009, identified 1,200 viruses that had the potential to erupt into pandemics, including more than 160 novel coronaviruses. The initiative, called PREDICT, also trained and supported staff in 60 foreign laboratories — including the Wuhan lab that identified SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Field work ceased when the funding ran out in September, and organizations that worked on the PREDICT program laid off dozens of scientists and analysts, said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a key player in the program.

On Wednesday, USAID granted an emergency extension to the program, issuing $2.26 million over the next six months to send experts who will help foreign labs squelch the pandemic. But program leaders say the funding will do little to further the initiative’s original mission.

“Look at the name: Our efforts were to predict this before it happens. That’s the part of the program that was exciting — and that’s the part I’m worried about,” Daszak said.

Alarming Numbers

The number of coronavirus infections worldwide has hit 1 million, with more than 50,000 deaths, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Still, the true numbers of deaths and infections are thought to be much higher in part because of differences in counting practices, many mild cases that have gone unreported, testing shortages and suspicions of a cover-up in some countries.


Meanwhile, the U.S. government said soaring layoffs due to the pandemic pushed a record 10 million Americans to apply for jobless benefits in the last two weeks, raising the specter of an economic crisis so extreme it could end in another Great Depression. Just a month ago, the U.S. was experiencing a record expansion and half-century low in unemployment.

“To put it bluntly, the U.S. economy went from full speed to full stop — and millions of workers were not wearing seat belts,” said Josh Lipsky, director of global business and economics policy at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank.

That has moved members of Congress and policy analysts to push for a new round of federal relief on top of the $2.2-trillion package passed last week.

To Mask or Not to Mask?

The science is far from settled about the level of protection face masks provide the general public in blocking the coronavirus. Still, concerned citizens are churning out DIY masks in retirement communities, suburban ranch houses and artist studios, using patterns found online or shared via email. They are giving their creations to friends and family members, donating them to first responders and helping fill an enormous protective equipment gap in the U.S. healthcare system.

So, should you wear one? After weeks of officials advising against them for most healthy people, the stance is shifting. President Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would soon issue new guidelines, softening an earlier anti-mask stance. Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped short of telling Californians that they have to wear face coverings whenever they leave their homes, but he didn’t discourage use of the increasingly ubiquitous masks either. Officials in parts of Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area have urged people to wear them.


Thinking of making your own? Here’s how to do it, including one that requires no sewing.

Going to the Data

A Times analysis of L.A. County health data shows that predominantly white, affluent areas such as Hancock Park, Bel-Air, Beverly Crest and Brentwood have reported some of the highest per-capita rates of confirmed coronavirus cases, while many working-class and majority nonwhite communities such as Bell Gardens, Watts and El Monte reported much lower rates.

Why the disparity?

Public health officials and experts say the data is probably skewed by uneven access to testing, and in some instances by wealthy residents who traveled internationally and had some of the earliest confirmed infections. The trend, some experts say, bodes poorly for local efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.

The Second Wave

Vietnam has banned public gatherings of more than two people. Hong Kong has closed nightclubs, karaoke bars and mah-jongg parlors, and deployed health inspectors to check that restaurants are seating parties at least six feet apart. Singapore has warned that anyone standing within three feet of another person in line could face up to six months in jail.

Suddenly, governments in Asia that appeared to be bringing the coronavirus under control are imposing new social restrictions as the numbers of infections, many from overseas, continue to rise. The stepped-up measures in recent days are a sign that fighting the disease will take much longer than anticipated. Epidemiologists say they also show that governments must adapt their responses as the threat from the virus evolves.

More Top Coronavirus Headlines


— A Pentecostal church in a Sacramento suburb is the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak with more than six dozen confirmed cases of the illness, prompting county officials to warn against religious gatherings.

Blood donation centers across the U.S. are ramping up efforts to collect plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 in hopes it could be used to save the lives of others infected.

— A coronavirus immunity test is essential for the U.S. But will it work?

— As Los Angeles prepares for a storm of coronavirus cases, efforts to get homeless people off the streets and to secure rooms for patients to stay without risk of infecting others are off to an uneven start.

— The U.S. State Department won’t be processing new passports and renewals except for emergency cases because of the coronavirus pandemic, the agency’s website says.

— Why China’s wildlife ban is not enough to stop another virus outbreak.


Plus, here are some tips on getting through the days ahead. For more, sign up for Coronavirus Today, a special edition of The Times’ Health and Science newsletter that will help you understand more about COVID-19. As with all our newsletters, it’s free:

— Working from home got you stiff and sore? An ergonomics expert offers eight tips to stay healthy.

— FAQ: Your top questions answered.


What’s the best way to get travelers to and from Los Angeles International Airport? It’s a never-quite-finished battle, with varying results.

In 1965, airport officials got points for creativity. The Los Angeles Department of Airports was weighing a monorail service. But that wasn’t stylish enough for Clarence M. Belinn, founder and president of Los Angeles Airways. He pitched a “flying bus,” as The Times reported in an April 4, 1965, story. Passengers would settle into a lounge pod that would then be picked up by a commercial version of the Air Force’s flying crane. He was even able to get federal backing — for a $735,000 study — but the project never went further. Neither did the monorail.


— Thousands of L.A. residents are spending more time at home. But construction sites are still bustling, and home-bound tenants are getting fed up with noise, dust and water shutoffs.

— Workers at six Amazon facilities in Southern California have tested positive in the last week for the virus that causes COVID-19.

— The latest shortage? Dogs and cats, as people foster and adopt pets during quarantine.


— Government services are strained, but these L.A. volunteers want others to know you can still count on your neighbors.

— A NASA telescope could be a powerful new tool for scientists. But as it sits in a Redondo Beach facility, the coronavirus threatens to throw the project off track.

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— Bored? The internet is full of surprises and rabbit holes. Or write a haiku for this artist.

— You may not be able to gather for Passover next week, but you can still find a good meal.

— The best blueberry muffins, period. And they’re easy to make too.


Share the story of your wackiest, weirdest, most wonderful travel souvenir.


— Door knocking is out. Rallies, too. So how does one run a campaign for office amid a pandemic? Politicos are figuring it out. And they have more time to do it: The Democratic convention is moving from July to August.

— Capt. Brett Crozier, the captain of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus, was fired by Navy leaders who said he created a panic by sending his memo pleading for help to too many people.

— Since 1994, Goma, Congo, has been through war, a refugee crisis, a volcano eruption and an Ebola epidemic. Now its citizens are bracing for the coronavirus.

— Meet Chrystia Freeland. As deputy prime minister, she’s the most prominent woman in Canada and leading the country’s fight against COVID-19.

Post-virus China is ruled by a green symbol on smartphone screens. It’s part of an app that grants or denies access to services like public transit based on health status.


Pete Nowalk learned from Shonda Rhimes. But the creator of ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” made the show all his own.


— Playwrights, actors and directors are debuting new productions about coronavirus, designed for distant audiences.

— The J. Paul Getty Trust is establishing a $10-million COVID-19 relief fund for small and midsize arts organizations in Los Angeles County.

Songwriters professional and amateur are finding inspiration in the coronavirus pandemic. Listen to their work, from showtune parodies to reworked pop hits.


Home lenders are bracing for as many as 15 million mortgage defaults.

Walt Disney Co. said it would begin to furlough employees “whose jobs aren’t necessary at this time” amid widespread business closures due to the coronavirus crisis.


— For former boxer Mia St. John and many like her, sobriety is a struggle in a time of isolation.


— UCLA’s gymnastics season was canceled. But Nia Dennis still gets to bask in the glow of a Beyoncé-inspired routine gone viral.


— Years of educational efforts aimed to help disadvantaged students catch up to their more affluent classmates. The Times’ editorial board says the coronavirus could upend it all.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom and New York’s Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have been top leaders in the coronavirus crisis. But don’t count on them to challenge Joe Biden, writes columnist George Skelton.

— Forget Trump’s daily briefings. Watch these coronavirus messengers instead, TV critic Robert Lloyd recommends.


— The internet urges us to do more of this and optimize that. Here’s a reminder that it’s OK to just meet basic needs. (New York Times)

— First it was Clorox wipes. Then it was yeast. Now jigsaw puzzles are selling out. (Wall Street Journal)



What are you doing to stay sane during the coronavirus pandemic? Interior designer Justina Blakeny, creator of the Jungalow, is taking refuge in her plants. “I don’t have a therapist, but I talk to my tillandsia. She’s a good listener and helps me clear the air, figuratively and literally,” she writes in The Times. “I can’t meet my girlfriends IRL for a drink these days, but I can hydrate with Ficus Audrey. She’s very low maintenance, unlike many of my human girlfriends.”

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