White House, Under Fire for Discouraging Coronavirus Testing, Says It Will Buy Millions of Test Kits

The Four Percent


Donald McNeil Jr. has been a reporter at The New York Times since 1976 and has covered global health since the 1990s, when he was a correspondent in South Africa and it was becoming the world’s biggest H.I.V. hot spot.

I’ve covered pretty much every pandemic or potential pandemic: AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS, H5N1 bird flu, H1N1 swine flu, Zika, dengue. And diseases like polio, tuberculosis, malaria, Guinea worm, yellow fever and measles that were once pandemics but are now confined mostly to poor countries.

Now I am trying to envision what the novel coronavirus will look like in the months or years ahead, based on interviews with experts. They might be doctors who fought other diseases, historians who studied earlier pandemics, or people with insights into human behavior under stress.

There aren’t a lot of rules on how to do this.

I became really worried on the night of Jan. 30, when China’s lab-confirmed case count went to 10,000 from 500 in a week, with 200 dead. It took time to convince others. I came into the office the next day raving that this was The Big One.

These days, I no longer feel like a lone crazy man whistling in the wind. Everyone — even President Trump — believes in The Big One. And everyone at The New York Times is covering it.

Now the story is so complex that keeping up with it is nearly impossible. I feel as if I conduct interviews, read studies, and watch TV day and night, just trying to follow shutdowns, school openings, vaccines, treatments, mask battles and what’s happening in Sweden, Hong Kong and New Zealand. You can’t deduce what might happen here without knowing what has worked elsewhere and calculating whether we can do the same thing — or if we’re just too stubborn and too polarized.

Prediction is an imperfect art. Viruses mutate, and people do the unexpected. But we’re trying.


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