CDC Director: ‘No New or Novel Pathogen’ Spreading in China, No Reason for Americans to Worry

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 30: Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Mandy Cohen told Congress on Thursday there is “no new or novel pathogen” behind the wave of pediatric respiratory illness spreading across China, so there is no reason for Americans to be concerned about a new virus escaping from China like the Wuhan coronavirus did.

Cohen concurred with Chinese doctors that northern China’s unusually severe cold and flu season, which has overwhelmed hospitals in Beijing and other cities, is not the work of some new illness.

“These [cases] are related to existing pathogens – COVID, flu, RSV and mycoplasma, a bacterium that can infect the lungs,” Cohen told the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Thursday.

Cohen said this conclusion was supported by “other sources from our European Union partners and others to make sure that we are getting a complete picture.”

Some of the House subcommittee members noted similarities between the current outbreak and the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, which China also insisted was a minor local problem under complete control before it spread from Wuhan and ravaged the world.

“The lack of reliable information coming out of China is a troubling parallel to 2020,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) said.

“We are hoping that you can put some pressure in an attempt to try to get China to not mislead the world as they did with Covid-19,” Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee chairman Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) told Cohen.

One reason for international apprehension about China’s respiratory virus outbreak was the World Health Organization’s (W.H.O.) seeming skepticism about early reports and requests for more data from China. W.H.O. appears to be satisfied with China’s response, but not everyone is satisfied with W.H.O., as the House committee members made clear.

McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, cowrote a letter to Cohen the day before she testified criticizing CDC for its “failure to communicate accurate information in real-time during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The letter, cowritten by Griffith and Subcommittee on Health chairman Brett Guthrie (R-KY), said it was important for the CDC to restore the trust it lost with the American people during the coronavirus pandemic — beginning with full transparency about China’s current epidemic of respiratory illnesses.

The letter to Cohen said:

It would be an abdication of the CDC’s duty to the American people if it allows China to repeat its misdeeds from the Covid-19 pandemic. The American people should not have to rely on the unaccountable and untrustworthy W.H.O. to communicate information about Chinese public health threats.

The letter asked several pointed questions about the CDC’s interactions with Chinese health officials, including how much data China has shared, and if Chinese officials refused to answer any questions. The letter also asked if the CDC has prepared for the possibility of respiratory diseases and pneumonia surging in the United States.

The Washington Post on Thursday quoted some independent health officials who agreed with Cohen and W.H.O. that no evidence of a novel pathogen has surfaced in China, although some of them agreed skepticism of China’s response is warranted.

“The problem remains there, so we cannot just categorically take wholesale what the government says. There’s no serious dialogue between the two governments on how they should be cooperating with each other,” Yanzhong Huang, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) senior fellow for Global Health, said.

The prevailing theory of the Chinese outbreak is that coronavirus lockdowns prevented the normal development of immune responses, leading to more cases of highly contagious respiratory illness. A similar effect has been observed on a smaller scale in the U.S., where lockdowns were not quite as severe as China’s infamous citywide imprisonments.

Cohen predicted respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases are approaching their peak in the United States, but flu season is just beginning, and Wuhan coronavirus infections are still leading to hospitalization. On Friday, Massachusetts joined Ohio in reporting a major surge in pediatric pneumonia cases. Massachusetts health officials attributed the surge to RSV. 

FLASHBACK — CDC Director: RSV Hospitalization Surge Partially Due to COVID ‘Mitigation Strategies’

Forbes noted that Thursday marked Cohen’s first testimony to Congress since she was appointed CDC director in June, replacing controversial pandemic-era director Rochelle Walensky. Cohen was generally defensive of CDC’s conduct during the pandemic under questioning by subcommittee Republicans.

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