Issues & Insights

How Bad Regulation, Bureaucracy Slowed The Fight Against Deadly Wuhan Coronavirus

Yale health expert Dr. Michael Bracken warned NIH that most of its research money was wasted.

Amid all the political name-calling and finger-pointing over who’s to blame and how to attack the Wuhan coronavirus, one thing surprisingly gets little mention at all: regulation. But bad regulation not only slowed our response, it likely added to our death count.

We’re happy to note that in recent days and weeks, President Trump has helped ease the regulatory burden of our response to the coronavirus, pushing Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, our main health agencies, to bend, suspend and in some cases upend useless rules.

But that doesn’t mean every useless regulation was excised from the rulebooks. Or that our major health care regulators made good decisions with the billions of dollars entrusted to them for basic research.

Far from it. And the coronavirus pandemic and the public panic that ensued is a case in point. To be blunt, U.S. health care regulatory agencies mishandled the crisis.

Indeed, both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) fumbled the ball early when it came testing for the Wuhan coronavirus, largely because of bad regulations.

“Even now, after weeks of mounting frustration toward federal agencies over flawed test kits and burdensome rules, states with growing cases such as New York and California are struggling to test widely for the coronavirus,” the New York Times noted in a March 11 story. “The continued delays have made it impossible for officials to get a true picture of the scale of the growing outbreak, which has now spread to at least 36 states and Washington, D.C.”

The Times highlights Dr. Helen Chu, who early on had taken swabs from the noses of patients in Washington State who seemed to be suffering from a particularly nasty virus. She proposed to local, state and federal officials testing those swabs for unusual coronavirus infections.

Instead, the CDC told Dr. Chu she’d have to get FDA approval for her test. The FDA nixed it because the lab she worked in wasn’t “certified” to conduct such tests, something that takes months to do.

So early data that could have helped fight what later became a raging pandemic weren’t available. All because a bureaucracy went strictly by the book.

Worse still, as the virus began spreading, the CDC told health officials only to use a test it had created. Only one problem: the test was faulty.

As the MIT Technology Review noted earlier this month, “The first testing kits from the Centers for Disease Control had a simple fault, and red tape prevented other labs from creating their own.”

So instead of massive testing and a clear understanding of the scope of the pandemic, we got panic instead.

Going back in time, other bureaucracies dropped the regulatory ball in other ways.

The National Institutes of Health, the agency that largely oversees America’s public health research, is one example. After the SARs and H1N1 epidemics earlier in this century, NIH had more than a decade to get prepared for this one.

It didn’t do a very good job, as American Thinker Deputy Editor Andrea Widburg recently noted. Despite repeated warnings by researchers, the NIH dithered in preparing for a nasty outbreak such as the one we’re having now.

Instead, it wasted resources on health issues of marginal importance at best.

Dr. Paul Bracken, a renowned public health professor and researcher at Yale University, estimated in a speech to the NIH in 2016 that as much as 87.5% of health research (much of it funded by the NIH) is either wasted or inefficient. The implication: the NIH was failing at its job by misspending and misdirecting a then-$40 billion-a-year research budget.

As investigative journalist John Solomon recently noted, instead of spending money on major health threats, NIH has wasted resources on such things as studies of drunken monkeys and overweight lesbians, the impact of TV and gas generators on Vietnamese villages, and research that sought to answer the pressing question of whether 21- to 30-year-olds would lose more money gambling if they drank booze.

Meanwhile, NIH also went Hollywood, throwing away money on a 12-part soap opera on the sex lives of HIV patients, and funding hip-hop songs to see if they would encourage kids to eat healthier.

Do you feel safer now?

The point is, our main regulatory, research and policy-making agencies at the national level are divorced from their true mission: To protect Americans. Their actions arguably contributed to the current quarantine and to the rising deaths from the Wuhan coronavirus across the country.

And the regulatory dysfunction isn’t just about pandemics. A study two years ago found that “the total cost of healthcare regulatory compliance for the average-sized hospital is about $47,000 per bed, or $1,200 per patient.”

Think about that amount when you hear discussions about U.S. hospital “capacity” for handling a pandemic such as this. We’d have a lot more hospital capacity if we cut the regulatory costs of caring for seriously ill patients.

No, we’re not anti-regulation or anti-government. And many of the agencies criticized have moved to correct their mistakes. But the fact remains, so many rules and actions by our health care bureaucracies make such little sense from a cost-and-benefit standpoint, that it’s time for a major overhaul.

Luckily, President Trump took the heat for imposing a travel ban from China early on in the virus’ spread, or things would be far worse. Sadly, many of our health care agencies didn’t do so well. When this pandemic is over, it’ll be well past time for a regulatory reckoning and restructuring of our federal health-care overseers. American lives depend on it.

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4 comments

  • Ask any business, regulations cost money. In the fishing industry we call it strangulation by regulation. No matter what we do, when it comes to government bureaucracy it is never enough. Job justification

  • Another aspect of response to this virus is that all of industry has been relying on “just in time”
    supply chain with very little if any back-up stocks of anything. Thus supply problems for most anything needed to fight this virus.

  • The problem, as always is too much money headquartered in the alphabet agencies of the federal Leviathan. Their only mode is to spend, spend, spend. As noted, the money is not spent wisely but is used to placate the diversity and PC czars in the government. Give them less money and they’ll waste less. And, a little oversight might help in not wasting our hard-earned tax dollars. Congress, where are you? Oh, never mind.

  • It would be interesting to find out the number of members of “the resistance” operating in these agencies. Were they slow walking everything to hurt Trump and instead caused the deaths of innocent Americans?

  • [print-me target="#post-%ID%"]

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Issues & Insights is a new site formed by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

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