Trump and his Science Problem

On Friday, January 31, Mr. Trump announced a policy of restricted entry for travelers coming from China, mistakenly satisfied that Covid-19 could be bottled up there.  From early January a growing chorus of advisors tried to get his attention without success. That story is told in an exhaustive analysis of White House bungling: “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus.” I recommend it. It will be a must read for later historians. 

The email below is from Dr. Robert Kadlec, a member of the White House coronavirus task force and an expert in biodefense, to a research scientist asking about the truth of an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association published on February 21. Dr. Kadlec accurately recognizes that if the article is true, then “we have a huge whole [sic] on our screening and quarantine effort.” She replied ““People are carrying the virus everywhere.” It would be three more weeks before Mr. Trump absorbed the message and announced “social distancing”–for fifteen days–starting on March 16.

Now Trump wants to rewrite the history of his own actions. He wants vindication based on his January 31st travel restriction. He deserves no such credit. His travel restriction fit his simplistic belief in walls as solutions–and completely denies what his advisors knew and were trying desperately to make him hear. By January 31st, the date of his travel restrictions, Covid-19 had already jumped the barriers, with more than 100 cases in twenty countries. 

Trump’s denial of scientific consensus is, of course, widely known from his declaration that climate science is a “Chinese hoax.” Self-characterized as a “stable genius” with “absolute power,” his ignorant denial of the best available science is costing lives. 

So how effective were Trump’s travel restrictions in the face of a virus known to spread from asymptomatic carriers? Researchers in the field of genetics have an answer: Most of the virus that sickened and killed thousands in New York arrived in New York in the month of February from Europe. SARS-CoV-2, easily masquerading as the flu, was quietly spreading, likely killing the occasional patient as it masqueraded as seasonal influenza. After all, Mr. Trump reassured us it was “under control,” while Fox talking heads (see P.S.) reassured Trump and the country that Covid-19 was “just the flu.” Meanwhile, community doctors were flying blind in flu season with inadequate access to timely testing that could have helped them recognize the early stages of the pandemic.

Scientists have well-understood technology available to rapidly “sequence” genetic material, whether DNA (as in mammals) or RNA (as in SARS-CoV-2 and many other viruses). The same technology is fundamental to “23 and Me” and “” and to all the “cold” murder and rape cases recently solved by DNA detectives using genetic sequencing and databases.

SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material is a single strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid) consisting of a string of about 30,000 “bases,” the organic molecules guanineuraciladenine, and cytosine (denoted by the letters G, U, A, and C).  That string of bases (the order of appearance of them being the “sequence”) is the blueprint the virus uses to direct the cellular machinery of the host’s cells to make millions of copies of itself. Like all RNA and DNA, random mutations occur in the viral genetic material at some background rate, i.e. a G, U, A, or C molecule is replaced by the wrong base–or is dropped out–or a base is incorrectly inserted as the genetic material is copied. Important to note: only rarely do these mutations cause any change in how the virus works. However, each mutation is passed on to all the subsequent viral copies in the endless chain of viral multiplication and transmission to new victims. Each mutation serves as a marker of lineage of the virus as it infects the next host.

This is standard modern day biological and evolutionary science. The exact sequence of the G, U, A, and C molecules in the RNA strand of the original SARS-CoV-2 was worked out with stunning speed. On January 10, 2020 the sequence of five genomes of SARS-CoV-2 samples was already published by Chinese and Australian collaborators. The results were posted on line. Researchers the world over went to work on more sequencing and related research. The study of virus samples from New York City linked below built on this worldwide collaboration to construct a genetic lineage of SARS-CoV-2 for NYC. 

The results are stunning. The majority of the 84 viral genomes the researchers sequenced came from multiple introductions of virus through Europe, introduced virus that had been circulating undetected in the New York area since mid-February. While Trump was denying the threat of Covid-19, congratulating himself over how his restrictions on travel from China were keeping the virus “under control,” SARS-CoV-2 was already smoldering in his home town, having come in through the back door with travelers carrying the virus from Europe.

Now Mr. Trump and his Fox surrogates are trying to re-write history. He is flailing about, casting blame on the Chinese and the World Health Organization for his own failure listen to his own advisors, learn, and act. He wants us to believe his early leadership was perfect, that he fully understood the problem from the beginning and that he took the appropriate and proper action early on. The record tells the opposite. 

On the bright side: While Trump was keeping to his xenophobic, science-denialist mindset, scientists around the world were (and are) engaged in a spectacular example of information sharing and cooperation that should, by simple example, put Trump to the shame he deserves.

You can read the NYTimes Science article here: 

or the raw pre-publication science article on which the NYTimes article was based, “Introductions and early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the New York City area,” here:

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. If you have not yet watched “Heroes of the Pandumbic” click and watch it now. It is a great antidote to Mr. Trump’s and Fox’s efforts to re-write history. (Sadly, if your youtube ads are like mine you will also be forced to watch at least of few seconds of an irritating and ubiquitous ad for  “The Epoch Times” with details of mis-information it contains, all sponsored by a lavish ad budget from the Falun Gong in support of Donald Trump.]