“I learned a lot about Covid,” the president boasted Sunday in a video message from the hospital at which he was being treated for the infection. Meanwhile, at least half a dozen members of his inner circle of advisers have also tested positive, following months of disregard for standard public health guidance. This pigheaded indifference to the facts of the pandemic, and unwillingness to change behavior, has not been limited to the Oval Office, though. We’ve seen it creep into the Department of Health and Human Services, too, and even the president’s Coronavirus Task Force.
This article was reported in collaboration with the nonprofit newsroom Type Investigations.
Now there’s evidence that the Trump administration’s self-destructive impulse not to learn about Covid has even taken hold in government labs that are far from the front lines of public health. Last month, scientists at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, learned that Trump’s appointee as director of the US Geological Survey, James Reilly, had shut down a seemingly apolitical project to study the potential impacts of the new coronavirus on the critically endangered black-footed ferret. There are just a few hundred of these animals left in the wild, and their survival as a species appears to be in question. Covid has already killed thousands of minks, which are in the same family as ferrets, on fur farms in Utah; and in Europe, where similar outbreaks have occurred, there is evidence suggesting that minks have transmitted the disease to humans.
Reilly, a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist, has already tried to alter—if not hamstring—his agency’s vital work on climate science. His intervention in the ferret study suggests he may be hostile to the idea of doing any sort of Covid research whatsoever. That’s despite the fact that the NWHC is the only federal lab in the nation certified to work on high-risk, infectious diseases in wildlife populations; and that it has a long history of investigating potential zoonotic pathogens. In 2014, for example, the center’s researchers were the first to identify strains of avian influenza in the US, providing crucial early information to the poultry industry. They’ve also been studying coronaviruses for more than a decade.
What was Reilly’s problem with the ferret study, exactly? According to four employees at USGS who spoke to me anonymously for fear of retribution, Reilly has expressed concerns about the lab’s safety. In particular, he has said he’s worried that research on the new coronavirus could lead to its possible mutation and spread via laboratory accident—and that he would not allow this to happen on his watch. The Inspector General for the Department of the Interior is reviewing allegations that the lab is unsafe, according to three USGS employees. In 2019, according to documents obtained by WIRED, Reilly himself prompted a similar investigation into what he alleged was an attempt to conceal information pertaining to safety violations at a USGS test reactor facility in Colorado. That one found no evidence that senior employees had acted inappropriately.
The NWHC, which dates back to the 1970s, is certainly in need of upgrades. In March, nearly two dozen industry and professional organizations involved in animal science sent a letter to Congress urging significant funding for new construction. “The current facilities … have been well-maintained, but are now in need of life-cycle replacement,” the letter said. If that doesn’t happen, “the Center may not be able to meet future standards for the operation of high biocontainment facilities.” But Leslie Dierauf, a wildlife veterinarian who was the center’s director from 2004 to 2008, says safety concerns are far-fetched, given the degree of monitoring that goes along with its status as a Biosafety Level 3 lab. Senior USGS employees contend that the NWHC’s safety record is unimpeachable. “What Reilly’s saying is absolutely untrue,” a senior USGS employee told me.
Reilly’s opposition to the research appears to gibe, to some extent, with the Trump administration’s line on the pandemic’s origins. While most researchers believe that the new coronavirus spread naturally from bats to humans, perhaps via an intermediary host, senior White House staff and some Republican members of Congress have speculated that the virus was engineered in a lab in Wuhan, China, and then unleashed, deliberately or not, from there. Trump himself endorsed this idea in late April, but refused to give specifics. Yes, he told a reporter, he did have a “high degree of confidence” that it’s true, for reasons he was “not allowed” to share.