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Two months before the novel coronavirus is thought to have begun its deadly advance in Wuhan, China, the Trump administration ended a $200-million pandemic early-warning program aimed at training scientists in China and other countries to detect and respond to such a threat.

The project, launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2009, identified 1,200 different viruses that had the potential to erupt into pandemics, including more than 160 novel coronaviruses. The initiative, called PREDICT, also trained and supported staff in 60 foreign laboratories — including the Wuhan lab that identified SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Field work ceased when the funding ran out in September, and organizations that worked on the PREDICT program laid off dozens of scientists and analysts, said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a key player in the program.

On Wednesday, USAID granted an emergency extension to the program, issuing $2.26 million over the next six months to send experts who will help foreign labs squelch the pandemic. But program leaders say the funding will do little to further the initiative’s original mission.

“Look at the name: Our efforts were to predict this before it happens. That’s the part of the program that was exciting — and that’s the part I’m worried about,” Daszak said.

“It’s absolutely critical that we don’t drop the idea of a large-scale, proactive, predictive program that tries to catch pandemics before they happen. Cutting a program that could in any way reduce the risk of things like COVID-19 happening again is, by any measure, shortsighted,” he added.

It is unclear whether another five-year grant would have dulled the impact of the current pandemic. But the Trump administration has come under increased criticism for its past moves to downgrade global health security, including proposals to slash funding to science agencies and the elimination of the National Security Council’s key global health post. Read more

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