Last week, the president of the United States attended events in several states. He met many people, few wearing masks and some in very close proximity. Now, we see that a growing number of attendees have tested positive for the coronavirus and our president was hospitalized and received the most advanced treatment for this disease, COVID-19. This is a very serious situation and is not a scenario with which anyone in the United States should be comfortable.
If you do not agree this is a compromising situation for our nation that was likely avoidable, I think you will agree it has disrupted the functioning of government in a time when America needs a highly functioning government to help us through the biggest economic and public health crisis in a century. Therefore, no matter which political party we identify with, we should all want to ensure that this sort of scenario never occurs again.
I believe Congress needs to act immediately to establish a nonpartisan commission to investigate how President Donald Trump became infected with the coronavirus. The commission needs to begin an immediate investigation that will determine the origin of the infection and the route of transmission into the inner circle of our nation’s leadership. This commission needs to rule out a targeted bioterrorism/slow-assassination attempt in which the president and his close associates were targeted for infection by nefarious actors. This must be done to ensure the continued integrity and safety of the office of the president. This work needs to move beyond rapid tests to include viral whole genome sequencing (WGS) for all those infected in this cluster along with contact tracing and viral WGS (if still possible) for individuals who potentially spread this infection to the president and this cluster.
To create a clear picture of this cluster outbreak, state health departments must work with the federal government to perform contact tracing and sample collection for WGS from individuals who have tested positive. Currently, I suspect no samples are being archived for WGS. This commission and study will not quell all the conspiracy theories, but hard data and facts will go some distance toward convincing many people of the nature of this infectious disease outbreak.
Some astute readers may observe that it is obvious that not wearing masks, not adhering to physical distancing and spending extended periods of time in confined spaces has resulted in these infections. I agree, but that does not directly answer the key question of how our president has been compromised by being infected with the coronavirus. Whom did it come from and when? Who had they been in contact with? And so on.
Few protective steps taken
This whole scenario I have outlined sounds like something out of a Ludlum, le Carré or Clancy novel. Honestly, the most parsimonious explanation is that those infected did not wear masks or physically distance and gathered in crowded groups that included infected individuals with no ill intentions but who were shedding virus. The current response by the White House and Congress is simply disappointing. What this whole situation illuminates for all Americans to see is how unwilling our nation’s top leaders have been to perform the most basic infectious disease mitigation steps — wearing masks, physically distancing and avoiding gatherings in confined spaces. Importantly, it also reveals how ill-prepared even our nation’s top leaders are to deal with such a crisis — they have no concrete plan.
Here in Minnesota, we have many people who were potentially exposed, including three members of Congress, state political leaders and regular citizens who have attended Trump events recently. But even in Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and a highly competent state Department of Health, there isn’t a plan to systematically perform viral WGS on all potential positive individuals who attended Trump events or were in contact with him. Instead, some of those potentially exposed are quarantining and maybe getting tested. Some have tested negative once and may or may not get tested again. There does not seem to be a coordinated plan between the Minnesota Department of Health and the White House or other federal agencies that we know of. In fact, the White House announced it will not contact trace those potentially infected.
Planning for the future
One might argue that this will all sort itself out. OK, fair enough, but shouldn’t there at least be some thought given to establishing a protocol to address this sort of thing in the future? Shouldn’t there be a science-based plan, with discrete protocols, that creates a greater level of security for the office of the president, thus ensuring our national security is not compromised?
If a plan is built and protocols established, then in the future when anyone who has recently associated with the president tests positive their contacts would be rapidly traced, viral WGS performed (if possible) and any threats/risks for future contacts could be better mitigated. Of course, this would not necessarily prevent the president from being exposed, but it would provide more information about contacts. Without a study of the current situation we will be left with the New York Times and Washington Post carrying out better threat assessments on the office of the president than our own national security apparatus.
Congress must act immediately to establish a commission to study this crisis and formulate appropriate future responses to similar situations. Further, these recommendations must be rooted in the best available science. Sadly, I am not optimistic this will happen because it would require a bipartisan effort and both sides are currently unwilling to work together. Still, I hope the Minnesota congressional delegation will consider proposing that a commission be established to study this matter.
Matt Beckman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biology at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, where he teaches genetics. The views expressed here are his own and not those of his employer or anyone else.
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