© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: US President Trump chairs the Coronavirus Task Force's daily meeting at the White House in Washington
By Marisa Taylor
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration has reduced the staff of an important U.S. health agency operating in China by more than two-thirds. This is part of a major setback from US-funded local health and science experts who have led to the coronavirus outbreak, Reuters has learned.
Most of the cuts were made in the Beijing office of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and have been in the past two years. This emerges from public CDC documents viewed by Reuters and from interviews with four people who are familiar with the use.
Atlanta-based CDC, America's premier disease control agency, supports and works with nations around the world in public health to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases worldwide. It has been working in China for 30 years.
The number of CDC employees in China has dropped to around 14, from around 47 employees since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, according to the documents. The four people who spoke on condition of anonymity said the losses included epidemiologists and other health professionals.
The material reviewed by Reuters shows a breakdown of how many American and local Chinese employees were working there. The documents are the CDC's own descriptions of the number of employees it publishes online. Reuters was able to search past copies of the material to confirm the decline described by the four people.
"The Beijing CDC office is a shell of its former self," said one of the people, a US official who had worked in China at the time of the claim.
Regardless, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the global aid program that has helped China monitor and respond to outbreaks, have closed their offices in Beijing under Trump's supervision. Before the closure, each office was staffed by a US official. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) relocated the manager of an animal disease surveillance program from China in 2018.
The cuts in the U.S. authorities have put health experts, scientists and other professionals who could potentially help China to get an earlier response to the novel coronavirus out of action, and the U.S. government, according to people who are coming, more Information about what would come up spoke to Reuters. The Trump administration fined China in February for censoring information about the outbreak and preventing US experts from entering the country to help.
"We had a large number of experts in China who were brought back during this government a few months before the outbreak," said one of the people who witnessed the withdrawal of US personnel. "You have to consider the possibility that our use has made this disaster more likely or more difficult to respond to."
The White House declined to comment or answer questions from Reuters regarding the United States staff withdrawal in China.
The CDC did not answer detailed questions from Reuters about the cuts. It insisted that its workforce not interfere with the US response to the coronavirus.
"There are many factors involved in personnel decisions," the CDC said in a statement.
Some health experts were skeptical that more CDC employees in China would have made a difference in containing the outbreak. Beijing has been widely criticized for silencing its own health officials, who have warned of a fatal new respiratory disease that is affecting the Chinese city of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province.
"The problem was China, not that we didn't have CDC people in China," said Scott McNabb, a former CDC epidemiologist who is now a research professor at Emory University. He pointed to China's censorship as the main cause of the spread of the pandemic, which infected at least 435,470 people worldwide, killed 19,598 people and stimulated the global economy.
China's embassy in Washington declined to comment.
According to spokesman Robert Margetta, the NSF closed all foreign offices in 2018. He said the agency plans to "send teams on short-term expeditions around the world to find ways to improve international cooperation."
A USAID spokesman said the decision to close his Beijing office was "due to the significantly restricted access to Chinese government officials and the agency's position that the Chinese development model is inconsistent with US values and interests." .
The USDA confirmed that it has transferred a managerial position from Beijing. A spokesman said the department kept an office in China that had eight employees: five Americans and three Chinese. The office monitors animal diseases and helps solve "trade-related problems that occur in Chinese ports of entry," the spokesman said.
Reuters reported on Sunday changes in CDC personnel in China for the first time. The news agency announced that the Trump administration had eliminated the position of a US trainer from Chinese field epidemiologists who were deployed at the epicenter of the outbreaks to track, diagnose, and curb disease.
In a press conference on Sunday, Trump criticized the Reuters story as "100 percent wrong". However, the CDC admitted that the position had been reduced. The agency said the decision was made because of China's "outstanding technical capabilities" and the removal of this item had not hampered US efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.
Reuters' newly reviewed CDC identity documents show a sharp decrease in the Beijing agency's total workforce, with 33 out of 47 jobs lost.
The documents show the division between American and Chinese employees. The number of so-called American "agents" fell from eight to three positions at the beginning of the administration. Positions lost included medical epidemiologists and other infectious disease experts.
The biggest cuts affected positions filled by Chinese employees on the US payroll from 40 over the same period to around 10. According to people who spoke to Reuters, many of these local employees were medical experts and disease experts.
"The employees on site stayed in the CDC even longer and had extensive knowledge," said one of the respondents. "There is a loss of deep expertise and institutional knowledge."
The CDC informed Reuters that the three Americans currently working in China are a country director, an influenza expert, and an information technology expert. A temporary deputy director has recently arrived and this job will be permanently filled, the agency said in a statement. In addition, two Chinese employees are said to continue to work on certain areas of public health, including the training program.
The closed offices of USAID and NSF in China also played a role in building scientific relationships and fighting global diseases, according to the four people familiar with the situation.
USAID's Beijing office, which was staffed by a senior US official and two Chinese employees, worked on initiatives such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and malaria. The office was closed in 2019.
The NSF office was once headed by Nancy Sung, a distinguished American scientist who, according to the U.S. government official who spoke to Reuters, was an important link between the U.S. and Chinese science communities. The office also employed two local staff.
"She had far more contacts than most of us," said the official who had been in China at the time and was familiar with her role. "It could have helped to maintain important communication channels between the two countries, which are still very limited to this day."
Sung, who is now at NSF in the U.S., declined to comment on the closure of her office in 2018 and referred questions to the agency's public affairs office.
"WITHOUT ADVANTAGE FOR THE USA"
The changes took place amid the escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. Trump has long complained that China has stolen millions of American jobs and intellectual property, which the Chinese government has rejected as unfounded. The countries have billed billions of inches on each other's goods. Now their leaders are fighting to control the story of the pandemic. Trump called it the "Chinese virus" to focus on China's role in triggering the pandemic. China is meanwhile trying to maintain global leadership by helping Italy and other hard-hit countries.
In the past two years, the White House has been pushing US agencies with a presence in China to refinance programs there, along with the positions to manage them, according to the US official who spoke to Reuters.
The source said Terry Branstad, the US ambassador to China and former Republican governor of Iowa, was trying to remind the White House of the importance of the US presence in China, but was instructed by a government official to "come with the program." ".
"The White House saw the relationship as one-sided and of no use to the United States," said the source.
A State Department spokesman said in a statement that the US embassy in China "is one of our largest and reflects the many areas of bilateral engagement."
"Since the arrival of Ambassador Branstad, the US mission to China has had a solid base to advance important foreign policy goals on behalf of the American people," the statement said. "The workforce of the numerous federal authorities and sections has stabilized overall and increased in some cases."
After Reuters’s story about eliminating China’s key CDC position ran on Sunday, Trump’s reelection campaign used it to raise funds. In a mass email to supporters, she accused Trump's critics of "being on the Chinese side" and helping Beijing "cover up".
The CDC informed Reuters on Monday that Redfield had decided to add a program director for global health threats to its Chinese employees.
"At Dr. Redfield's request, CDC continues to evaluate long-term additions to improve CDC’s presence in China for over 30 years," the statement said.