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Former FDA chief Gottlieb says US intelligence companies ought to examine virus outbreaks

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, speaks during the Skybridge Capital SALT New York 2021 conference in New York City, the United States, on September 15, 2021.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Monday that U.S. intelligence agencies should be tasked with investigating emerging public health threats overseas in order to combat future disease outbreaks.

Gottlieb, who also sits on Pfizer’s board of directors, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that the public had lost confidence in US health officials and called for more funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said identifying problem viruses overseas and equipping the CDC with better crisis management resources would improve the country’s ability to counter new contagions.

“I think that in the future we will not only be able to rely on countries voluntarily sharing information,” said Gottlieb in an appearance promoting his book “Uncontrolled Distribution”. “We need to go in and have the capacity to collect them and monitor for these things, and that means our overseas intelligence agencies are getting much more involved in the public health mission around the world.”

World Health Organization officials said they are not sure if China has disclosed all of its data on the origin of Covid. Gottlieb suggested that countries today are less receptive to disease details because they are afraid of becoming isolated. He noted that the US has avoided involving intelligence agencies on international public health issues because the CDC feared that “anyone who wears a white coat overseas will be perceived as a spy”.

In addition to treating outbreaks as national security issues, Gottlieb said that as the pandemic began, the CDC was ill-prepared for the widespread adoption of Covid tests and vaccines that followed.
The CDC’s changing messages regarding Covid prevention tactics also undermined public confidence in the agency, Gottlieb said.

But the right resources, skills and logistical management could help the CDC better cope with public health emergencies, Gottlieb said.

“I think a lot of people lost confidence in public health officials after this pandemic,” Gottlieb said. “They felt that the manual was not well informed, not well articulated, not distributed in a way that we could incorporate it into our lives.”

The pandemic has also highlighted the systemic healthcare bias that people of color also face, Gottlieb said, including unequal access to Covid testing and technology. Improving the country’s outbreak readiness involves not only strengthening the CDC and disease surveillance, but also finding solutions to health inequalities and structural disadvantages that permeate American society, Gottlieb said.

“If we are to make ourselves more resilient to such public health crises, we must address these inequalities and do more to ensure that we people with historical illness receive adequate health care excluded from these opportunities,” said Gottlieb.

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC employee and a member of the board of directors of Pfizer, genetic testing startup Tempus, health technology company Aetion, and biotechnology company Illumina. He is also co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings ′ and Royal Caribbean’s Healthy Sail Panel.

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