MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist for the Post. My guest today is my friend Lawrence Wright, an investigative journalist for The New Yorker and the author of an extraordinary new book called “The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid.” There’s so many extraordinary books, plays, one-man shows, other aspects of Larry’s resume. I just have to tell the audience my own favorite is that he is the keyboard player in the Austin-based blues band WhoDo. So, Larry, welcome to Washington Post Live.

MR. WRIGHT: It's good to be with you again, David.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, let's begin as your book does with the origin story of COVID in Wuhan, China. You tell that story movingly about a Chinese researcher, Ai Fen; the heroic martyr doctor, Dr. Li Wenliang. I want to ask you with all that we're learning what your own judgment is on the core question of whether this began with an accident in nature that got into a seafood market or some other transmission path or an accident in a laboratory that led to the infection of people through that route. Do you have a judgement about which is--which is the right explanation?

MR. WRIGHT: David, I think they're both plausible. You know, bats are 20 percent of all the mammalian species, and they harbor an immense number of viruses. So--yeah, and we've certainly had experiences of having diseases leap out of bats into humans directly or through an intermediate animal, and yet there's no--there's no evidence so far that that's what happened. We haven't found the virus in nature.

Lab leaks are far more common than a lot of people would like to think. We've had lab links in this country. CDC and Fort Detrick, you know, Ebola for instance leaked out, and in the U.K., you had several incidents where smallpox leaked out of labs. SARS-1 leaked out of--on four occasions in China. So those things can happen. Chinese behavior has been very worrisome to me, the ways in which they have failed to disclose certain facts such as the illness of researchers in that Wuhan lab that we are often talking about. In November, they were ill enough with COVID-like symptoms to go to the hospital. They were doing experiences called gain of function on coronaviruses to see what it would take to make them into a human virus. So, I don't think we're ever going to find the answer, David, unless we do find it in nature. If we find a coronavirus really close to COVID-19 or SARS-COVID-2 as it is scientifically known, then we can say, yes, that's it, that's where it came from. But I doubt that, if we fail to find that, we'll ever really know the final answer to that question.

MR. IGNATIUS: Two related questions come from one of our audience members, Elias Meezan of California, who asks what about the role of the WHO. The WHO was asked to investigate the origins of COVID, and the question is, did they weigh heavily enough on the Chinese government? Was their reporting credible?

And then a question that you began to answer, will we ever find out where the virus began? And I'd add to that, does it matter that we know where and how it began?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, you know, it does matter, David, although in either case if you have an answer--yes, it came from nature, or yes, it came from a lab--then we are aware of those dangers but not quite aware as we might be. I worry, for instance, with lab leaks, so many of these labs called BSL-4--that's the highest level of safety--are located in population centers like Wuhan with 11 million people but also Atlanta and places like that have, you know, very dangerous diseases in centers of cities. And I think we have to recalibrate a bit about that.

We also don't take seriously enough I think the consequences of global warming and the--which moves animals out of territories that they've previously been acclimated to and the encroachment of humanity or of civilization into previously sanctuary areas for animals. This--you know, we're always going to have those problems.

But now I've forgotten the first part of that question, David, now that I've expatiated on it.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, the other part of the question was about the WHO's "investigation"--and I put that in quotation marks--and what we make of it.

MR. WRIGHT: The WHO is a supplicant. It has no real power, and so it has to have the permission of member states to do any work at all. There were supposed to be--well, there were new rules put into effect after SARS-1 in 2002 and 2003. Based on Chinese behavior--I mean, when World Health authorities went to China to find out what was going on with SARS, Chinese authorities reportedly took patients out of the hospitals and hid them in ambulances and taxis until the authorities were gone. And because of such behavior and the absence of transparency, new health regulations were instituted. And this is the first real test. And what we've seen so far about transparency from China has been dismal. And also, the World Health authority--World Health Organization has been shockingly compliant with the Chinese assessment of its own behavior. And I think now, you know, finally the leader of the WHO, Dr. Tedros, has said that the investigation that the WHO led on two occasions is inconclusive.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, like any good non-fiction book, all of the ones that you've done, you've woven your story around a series of characters. And if I had to identify a hero in your narrative, it would be Matt Pottinger, who is--was the deputy national security advisor under President Trump, who we begin the book with, we end the book with. Tell our viewers a little bit about Matt Pottinger and his early suspicions at the very beginning of the story, in early January, that something very bad was happening in China.

MR. WRIGHT: Well, David, you know, I feel particularly warm about Matt Pottinger because he began his career as you and I did, as a reporter. And that turned out to be an exceptionally important fact. He speaks fluent Mandarin, and so he was covering SARS-1 in China for The Wall Street Journal. And when the Chinese were issuing statements in early 2020 saying that this was not a human disease, it wasn't transmissible and we've got it under control, some alarm bells went off in Matt Pottinger's mind--evidently not in the minds of people in our intelligence community because very little information was coming from that corridor. And so, Matt was the deputy national security advisory and he--in that capacity he began acting like a reporter once again. He started calling sources in China. And the reports he was getting were pretty alarming. This was community spread. In other words, it was out of control in China. And so even American public health authorities weren't taking it nearly as seriously as Matt was.

And one of the things that he instituted was the coronavirus taskforce. He brought agents from across the government together to talk about this. And he also was the one who promoted the use of masks at a time when he was the very first person to wear a mask in the White House, and he said he felt like he was wearing a clown nose. And the president asked if he was ill, and he said, no, I just don't want to be the first person to knock off a president with a communicable disease. He was almost alone in his warnings in the White House about the threat that COVID-19 posed.

MR. IGNATIUS: We'll leave to readers seeing the tale of Matt Pottinger, but it's one of the really powerful parts of your book.

There are many, say, non-heroes in this story. We'll get to the role of President Trump in a minute. But as I read the book, the head of the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, Robert Redfield, does not come across well. And a worry that I had, Larry, reading the book was that I was reading the story of a decline of what had been a great institution of public health, the CDC. Talk a little bit about Dr. Redfield and about what happened to the CDC and what might have been different if better public health measures had been adopted, embraced by him and the CDC early.

MR. WRIGHT: You know, when I was young reporter, David, I did several stories out of the CDC, and I was so impressed. You know, the people that work there were brilliant. They were courageous. They'd go off to these hot spots that I wouldn't want to get near. They were humble. I thought of them as being noble, in a way. And they were regarded in the institution they worked for as somehow sacred. And it seemed to me, you know, the archetype of proper government. A brilliant agency. And it's heartbreaking to see how that wonderful institution has cratered in the face of this pandemic.

No doubt this has been going on for years, the weakening of the institution. But under the Trump administration, you know, the appointment of Dr. Redfield was, I think, a leadership mistake. He was not a strong leader, and he didn't push back against the attacks on the CDC from the administration. He--you know, much could have been different had the CDC been listened to. But unfortunately, the institution was downgraded and disregarded. And I think this--a lot of the suspicion of public health that we are seeing now has to do with the stumbles that the CDC made, especially with the test. That was a fiasco, and it's going to be hard--a long time before they live that down.

MR. IGNATIUS: And what's your feeling, Larry, about Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who is now the head of the CDC? Is she putting the place back together from what you can see and hear, or are we still going to have to struggle with a CDC that's just not up to par for a while?

MR. WRIGHT: I don't think she can wave her wand and make it work instantly, David. It's going to take years, I think, to rebuild that institution and regain the confidence and do the kind of recruiting of top scientists that's needed, and also to regain the respect of people in--not only in the public health field but ordinary Americans.

MR. IGNATIUS: I fear that's going to be right. Let's talk about the role of President Trump. And I'm going to begin with something that may surprise our viewers, but near the end of the book you write, looking back--and I'm going to quote here--"In the early months of the contagion in America, President Trump did show some leadership," and you go on to say that if he had done what he promised to do in mid-March, the cost of the pandemic might have been much less. Talk about that, and talk about what turned Trump, in your words, from a leader in that period to a saboteur of the efforts against the pandemic.

MR. WRIGHT: You know, I want to give the Trump administration some credit. I think they especially deserve credit on Operation Warp Speed. The--basically what that did was guarantee drug companies such as Pfizer and Moderna that their expenses would be covered, whether their vaccines succeeded or not. And that was unprecedented, and it--you know, at the time they were talking about we wouldn't have a vaccine still September of this year. Imagine what kind of situation we'd be in with all these new variants racing around. So let me put that on the table to start with.

However, there were plans about how to handle a pandemic. Of course, the Obama administration passed off a playbook for pandemics, and the Trump administration did its own tabletop exercise called the Crimson Contagion. And it's creepily prescient, the story on the--for the scenario for the Crimson Contagion was a traveler comes back from China to Chicago, and he's coughing. And then his son goes to a rock concert, and then five or six months later, half a million Americans are dead. But it shows how weak the federal response was, how confused the states are, how depleted our national storehouse was. And the longer this went on, the more bollocksed the government reaction became. That was exactly what the Trump administration predicted. And despite their own prediction, they followed the script exactly as it had played out on the tabletop.

I especially fault Trump for two things. One, the absence of the federal plan. And especially, you know, in a call with the governors he was saying--this was in March of 2020--we're behind you. You know, we're supporting you. But when he said what that meant was, as far as personal protective equipment and ventilators and that sort of stuff, you get it yourselves. We're behind you, but you do it. The governors had no idea that there was not going to be any federal plan. There were suddenly 50 different governors dealing with 50 different epidemics inside a pandemic. And Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, told me that on the call she realized that they didn't have enough PPE for the next shift. It wasn't a matter of weeks or months. They were out. And she and other governors began calling China and trying to get some masks and gowns and ventilators, and they were all competing against each other needlessly. And then when they would get, you know, like the governor of Massachusetts got several million masks from China, and when it arrived in the Port Authority, it was seized by the feds. So, the next time he sent the New England Patriots team plane to China, and then they hid the shipment from the Feds, as did governors from all over the country.

Gina Raimondo, who was the governor of Rhode Island, she was counting on a shipment from the national storehouse and kept asking the authorities when it was going to arrive. And they finally said it's arriving on Tuesday. And so, the truck came, and it was empty. To me, that exemplifies the federal response to this.

The sabotage, most strikingly, took place with the masks. When Pottinger in the White House had been, you know, advocating the use of masks. It was working in China, and there was resistance even among public health authorities. But finally, they became convinced. And they got the president at a briefing to announce that masks would help, and now they were suggesting widespread mask usage. And Trump's presentation was, they say this is good, it might work, you might want to wear it. I'm not going to wear it, but, you know, you might want to wear it. And he--and at that point he undermined the entire policy. I mean, he even went to a mask-making factory without a mask. It's just--he was immune to irony. And the last thing that we had in our arsenal that might have made a difference in terms of the spread was undermined by that kind of behavior.

MR. IGNATIUS: That portrait of a country where every governor was competing with every other governor and the political debate became nastier and nastier is one of the really horrifying parts of the story as you tell it in your book. I want to quote a passage that I found moving early in the book where you're talking about the sense of national disorganization. You say--I'm quoting here--every dissonant chord among the parties, the races, and the genders was amplified within the echo chambers, the fractured communities had made of themselves. It sounded to me like a description of America's impasse in the--in the plague year, and to be honest, today as well. Talk about that a little bit and about how in your mind we're going to get over that sense of division.

MR. WRIGHT: This was--I was describing our country when the pandemic arrived. And you know, I've thought about this, David. Suppose it was an enemy force that attacked America and killed half a million citizens? What kind of country would we--well, we'd be unified, I'm sure. We would repel the threat, we would be--everyone in--trying to save America. But instead, we--in the face of a natural disaster such as COVID-19, we become even more disunified. And this kind of division in our country has really posed a problem in terms of trying to stop this virus from spreading. I mean, we're not done with this pandemic, I fear. You know, the world is embroiled with many new variants, and it's going to be with us for a long time. And disunion only contributes to prolonging the siege of this infection not only in America but around the world.

MR. IGNATIUS: I have another question from an audience member, Larry. This is from Katharine Webster in New Hampshire, and she asks, please talk about the parallels between your study of religions and cults, including Scientology in your wonderful book "Going Clear," and some of the anti-mask, anti-vaccine campaigns and misinformation we're seeing now. Would love to hear your answer to that.

MR. WRIGHT: I think it's true that, you know, we're living in a--in a period of--I'm reluctant to say cult-like behavior, but there are--the idea that people believe things for which there is no evidence, or even believe things for which there's plenty of evidence they're not true, this is something that resembles cultish behavior. I think in the first part of the 20th century the--you know, what we saw in terms of cults was they were mainly political--Nazism, Maoism, that kind of thing. And then in the latter half of the 20th century they became more religious in nature. And now we seem to be moving into a different era where that kind of belief system takes root. And QAnon is a great example of some hybrid of semi-religious, semi-political kind of movement. And the fact that so many people believe it--not it. I mean, QAnon is a collection of false hypotheses that people adopt for whatever reason. But I think alienation, distrust, and a generalized sense of despair are very much at the root of why these things arise. And you know, this pandemic, unfortunately, only contributes to those kinds of factors.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let me turn to a question that people have been fascinated by. You wrote a novel about a pandemic hitting America that was published in April 2020 as the COVID pandemic was just really beginning to roar called "The End of October." It's been described as prophetic. How did Larry Wright know this could happen? But there's a fascinating passage in your book where you explain what you got wrong in the novel, which turned out to be more dystopian, more negative than real life. Talk a little bit about that. Maybe that's a little bit of good news.

MR. WRIGHT: Well, I have to say a lot of times Americans did a better job than I calculated they might in the face of such a siege. Isolating themselves voluntarily at enormous personal cost, economic, spiritual, social--you know, just it's been a hard siege for everybody. But you know--and it's--and patience wore thin, and so on. But it never got as bad as I imagined it would. Of course, my disease was more fatal than COVID-19, and more like what you see in India right now. In the face of a deadlier and more contagious virus, I think that we would be more like what I wrote about. You know, I did get way too much credit for being a prophet. Mainly what I did was talk to experts about what would happen if 1918 flu came back. Would we be any better prepared than our ancestors? And the answer was no. You know, in a novel disease that has no therapeutics, no vaccine, we would be in exactly the same shape as our ancestors a century ago.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask you about the other dominant figure in this Plague Year, and that's a person that many people deeply respect and some people--a growing number of people seem to be very critical of him, and that's Dr. Tony Fauci. He was pitted against President Trump increasingly by Trump's design, it seems. Talk about Tony Fauci and whether you think, as you look back at this year, he made mistakes that mattered, that he should have gotten right.

MR. WRIGHT: You know, I think he's been held responsible for a lot of the uncertainty that science had in the face of this brand-new disease. He, like practically everybody in public health, imagined that it was going to be something like influenza. And so, you know, there were steps that you would take for influenza that you wouldn't take for this virus, or vice versa. But you know, masks, for instance, maybe not so helpful with influenza but very important for this particular coronavirus. And nobody that I knew in public health got that right until finally studies were done that showed the efficacy of mask-wearing. And Fauci was part of that.

Other than that, honestly, if you look back at what people thought this disease was going to be like, even public health people like Fauci, they had to adjust their thinking. They didn't know, for instance, that there would be asymptomatic transmission. You know, this is unusual. I mean, it's not rare. Polio, for instance, only about 1 out of 200 cases is symptomatic. But with flu, you get the flu, you get sick, you go to bed. That's--you know, you know when people are symptomatic with the flu and are likely to spread it. That's not true with COVID-19. And so that was a terrible handicap for people in public health.

But the evolution of the science around it was reflected in Dr. Fauci's statements all through this. He was--he and everybody else in the scientific world that was dealing with it were off base many times and had to learn more to adjust their thinking. And people wanted him to be right from the beginning, but he'd have to be a prophet and not a scientist if that were to be the case.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask you a final question in the remaining two minutes we have. How do you think the Biden administration is doing in handling these problems? And just briefly, a 30-second version, what are the lessons that you think people ought to take away from this nightmare that we've lived through?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, you know, the Biden administration has, you know, outshone the Trump administration considerably in terms of exercising, you know, the federal government authority. For instance, the Trump administration, I gave them credit for the Operation Warp Speed, but they said that by the end of 2020 they would have 40 million Americans vaccinated, and at the end of 2020 they had 2 million. I think by their own metrics that a pretty fair evaluation of their efforts. And now, you know, we hope to sometime this summer have 70 percent of Americans inoculated. That's a huge step forward. It's--you know, it leads the world. And I think the Trump--the Biden administration should get a lot of credit for it.

Where we need to really concentrate is on building up our public health resources, making sure that we establish international authorities that can really have some sort of authority over epidemics that break out in countries like China where many of these diseases emerge. There has to be some real agreement that when you have an outbreak like this, the world has an interest in knowing more about it. And unfortunately, in our situation right now, we don't have that kind of situation. We need far more regional health organizations who can spot diseases over the horizon and notify each other, share information. It's really--the public health world is very fractured. And if we're taking one lesson out of this, I think we have to create an international health system that works for everybody and not just for highly developed countries and will break down barriers such as were exhibited by the Chinese this time around.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Larry Wright, it's a great book, another in a series of extraordinary books and pieces of work that you've done. It's great to have you with us. Thanks for coming.

So, stay with us. My colleague Jackie Alemany will at 3:30--that's right about now--interview Luis Elizondo who ran the Pentagon's UFO program. And at 4:30 we'll be looking at "Life After Vaccines: The Future of Travel and Live Events" with the commissioner of the WNBA, and the CEO of Kayak. So, stay with us. Thanks for joining Washington Post Live.

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