The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has become a focal point for criticism of the American government’s coronavirus response, blamed for botching tests that would have helped track the illness in its early days, and then receding from the Trump administration’s public messaging.

In a nearly hour-long interview with Bloomberg News, CDC Director Robert Redfield predicted that the CDC would emerge with its reputation and capabilities intact, even improved, from an outbreak that has infected at least 465,000 Americans, caused more than 16,000 deaths, and is projected to kill thousands more.

“We continue to be the premier public-health institution in the world,” Redfield told Bloomberg, addressing questions about the agency’s response to the virus, its public role, and its future.

The CDC was founded in 1946 as the Communicable Disease Center, charged with making sure that malaria didn’t spread across the nation. With a $7.28 billion annual budget and 10,000 employees in the U.S. and abroad, it’s one of the world’s foremost public-health agencies, charged with defending the nation against disease and protecting the health and well-being of Americans. But the coronavirus pandemic has tested the agency like never before, including a high-profile misstep during an important window when the virus might have been contained.

“We didn’t get ahead of the outbreak. And the CDC in its history would have always gotten ahead of the outbreak,” said Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, citing the agency’s work on Ebola, Zika and other diseases that have threatened the world. “Lives have been lost. It’s not just the CDC. It’s the entire government.”

Test Troubles
In January, as the outbreak expanded in China, the CDC’s scientists developed a test for the virus at the agency’s labs. On Feb. 4, the CDC was cleared to send out hundreds of test kits to state and local public-health labs, part of a stepped-up program to identify infections and track their contacts. The test kits were crucial to the U.S. effort to contain the disease while there were still less than 20 known cases in the country.

“I think history will lay the facts down correct,” Redfield said. “The real truth is, CDC did its job really in a record time and developed the test within seven to 10 days” from when the virus’s genetic sequence became available.

Unfortunately, the version of the test the CDC sent to labs failed to work for most. It took eight days for the CDC to announce the problem, and more time to get new kits out and modify existing ones.

“We then said, don’t use it, let us take it back,” he said. “And in a couple weeks we figured it out, we corrected it and got it out.”

Those weeks, however, were crucial. By the time the CDC shipped new versions of its test out, the virus had already started to spread inside the U.S., eventually setting off clusters of infections in New York, Seattle and California.

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