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Photo by Alex Brandon of The Associated Press / President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus during a press briefing in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday, May 11, 2020, in Washington.

In 2004, "60 Minutes" aired a segment on what it called "virus hunters," scientists searching for bugs that can leap from animals to humans and cause pandemics. "What worries me the most is that we are going to miss the next emerging disease," said a scientist named Peter Daszak, describing his fear of a coronavirus "that moves from one part of the planet to another, wiping out people as it moves along."

In the intervening years, Daszak became president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization focused on emerging pandemics. EcoHealth worked with China's Wuhan Institute of Virology to study coronaviruses in bats that could infect humans, and, as Science magazine put it, "to develop tools that could help researchers create diagnostics, treatments and vaccines for human outbreaks." Since 2014, the EcoHealth Alliance has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health, until its funding was abruptly cut two weeks ago.

The reason, as "60 Minutes" reported Sunday evening, was a conspiracy theory spread by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, who in March wore a gas mask on the House floor to mock concern about the new coronavirus. On April 14, Gaetz appeared on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show and claimed that the NIH grant went to the Wuhan Institute, which Gaetz intimated might have been the source of the virus — the institute may have "birthed a monster," in his words.

The first of Gaetz's claims was flatly false, and the second unlikely; the CIA has reportedly found no evidence of a link between the virus and the Wuhan lab. But at a White House briefing a few days later, a reporter from right-wing website Newsmax told President Donald Trump that under Barack Obama, the NIH gave the Wuhan lab a $3.7 million grant. "Why would the U.S. give a grant like that to China?" she asked.

In fact, Trump's administration had recently renewed EcoHealth's grant, but Trump didn't appear to know that. "The Obama administration gave them a grant of $3.7 million?" he asked. Then he said, "We will end that grant very quickly."

And they did. But ending the grant dealt a blow to efforts to find treatments and a vaccine for the coronavirus. Remdesivir, the antiviral drug that's shown some promise in COVID-19 patients, was earlier tested against bat viruses EcoHealth discovered. Now the nonprofit is facing layoffs.

This political hit on Daszak's work is far from the only way that the Trump administration's contempt for science has undermined America's coronavirus response. Conservative antipathy to science is nothing new; Republicans have long denied and denigrated the scientific consensus on issues from evolution to stem cell research to climate change.

The coronavirus has presented the country with an emergency that only sound science can solve. That means that the Trump administration's disdain for expertise, its elevation of slavish loyalty over technical competence, has become a more immediate threat.

According to Axios, Trump has privately started expressing skepticism of the coronavirus's death toll, suggesting it's lower than official statistics say. (Most experts believe the opposite.) The Trump administration's approach to the coronavirus began with denialism, and that's likely how it will end.

Any progress America makes in fighting COVID-19 will be in spite of its federal government, not because of it. "I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science — not politics or cronyism — has to lead the way," COVID-19 whistleblower Rick Bright said when he went public with his complaint in April. Trump won't let that happen. He'd rather essentially give up on combating it at all.

The New York Times

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