The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there is evidence the uptick in respiratory disease in China is being fueled by the flu, a common bacteria and other known threats and not a new pathogen like the coronavirus that struck Wuhan in late 2019 and caused global havoc.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, testifying before a congressional panel Thursday, said the CDC has an office in China, and “our officials have been in touch with our counterparts to make sure they were understanding the situation there.”
“We do not believe this is a new or novel pathogen. We believe this is all existing [pathogens] — meaning COVID, flu, RSV, Mycoplasma. But they are seeing an upsurgence,” Dr. Cohen told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
The World Health Organization has pressed Beijing for information about the sudden surge in respiratory illnesses in northern China and the capital.
Like Dr. Cohen, the health arm of the U.N. said the increase is being fueled by known pathogens, including a bacteria known as Mycoplasma pneumoniae — which can cause “walking pneumonia” — and common seasonal culprits such as the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
Many children have been affected by the outbreaks, suggesting it’s not a new pathogen but rather the result of a lack of exposure — and resulting immunity — to certain diseases during Chinese lockdowns in recent years.
U.S. lawmakers want the CDC to make sure China‘s communist government is telling the truth, pointing to early denials about COVID-19 that delayed or complicated the global response in late 2019 and early 2020.
Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the senior Republican on the Senate Health Committee, said he requested a briefing from the CDC.
“The biggest barriers to the early international response to COVID-19 were the Chinese government repressing information on the outbreak and preventing international experts’ access. Known respiratory diseases may be the cause of this new outbreak, but when it comes to China, we need to verify, then trust,” Mr. Cassidy said. “The Biden administration should scrutinize whatever the [Chinese Communist Party] allows to be released to make sure it’s adequate for the rest of the world to make decisions for their own public health.”
Likewise, House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans said they will demand biweekly briefings about the situation in China and signaled they are unwilling to take the WHO’s word at face value.
“It would be an abdication of the CDC’s duty to the American people if it allows China to repeat its misdeeds from the COVID-19 pandemic. The American people should not have to rely on the unaccountable and untrustworthy WHO to communicate information about Chinese public health threats,” committee Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican, said in a letter to Dr. Cohen on the eve of her testimony.
Dr. Cohen spoke about the China situation during a broader hearing on the threat of respiratory viruses this winter and efforts to bolster the CDC after a loss of public trust during the COVID-19 crisis.
Lawmakers in the pandemic era complained about shifting advice around masks, disease data that was collected slowly, or decisions that appeared to be influenced by outside actors such as teachers’ unions.
Dr. Cohen assured the committee she would make decisions based on “the data and evidence.”
“We are seeing more infectious disease threats than ever before, including respiratory viruses like COVID-19 and avian influenza, and other highly concerning viruses like polio, malaria, mpox, Ebola and Marburg,” Dr. Cohen said. “We need a CDC that is trusted and has the tools to quickly and effectively respond to the next public health threat.”
However, she said current House GOP budget plans seemed to zero out planned increases in funding for data infrastructure.
“That is just not going to be compatible with a successful CDC,” Dr. Cohen said.