WASHINGTON(Reuters) - The Trump administration cut staff by more than two-thirds at a key U.S. public health agency operating inside China, as part of a larger rollback of U.S.-funded health and science experts on the ground there leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, Reuters has learned.
Most of the reductions were made at the Beijing office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and occurred over the past two years, according to public CDC documents viewed by Reuters and interviews with four people familiar with the drawdown.
The Atlanta-based CDC, America’s preeminent disease fighting agency, provides public health assistance to nations around the world and works with them to help stop outbreaks of contagious diseases from spreading globally. It has worked in China for 30 years.
The CDC’s China headcount has shrunk to around 14 staffers, down from approximately 47 people since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the documents show. The four people, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the losses included epidemiologists and other health professionals.
The material reviewed by Reuters shows a breakdown of how many American and local Chinese employees were assigned there. The documents are the CDC’s own descriptions of its headcount, which it posts online. Reuters was able to search past copies of the material to confirm the decline described by the four people.
“The CDC office in Beijing is a shell of its former self,” said one of the people, a U.S. official who worked in China at the time of the drawdown.
Separately, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the global relief program which had a role in helping China monitor and respond to outbreaks, also shut their Beijing offices on Trump’s watch. Before the closures, each office was staffed by a U.S. official. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA) transferred out of China in 2018 the manager of an animal disease monitoring program.
Reductions at the U.S. agencies sidelined health experts, scientists and other professionals who might have been able to help China mount an earlier response to the novel coronavirus, as well as provide the U.S. government with more information about what was coming, according to the people who spoke with Reuters. The Trump administration in February chastised China for censoring information about the outbreak and for keeping U.S. experts from entering the country to assist.
“We had a large operation of experts in China who were brought back during this administration, some of them months before the outbreak,” said one of the people who witnessed the withdrawal of U.S. personnel. “You have to consider the possibility that our drawdown made this catastrophe more likely or more difficult to respond to.”
The White House declined to comment or respond to questions from Reuters regarding the U.S withdrawal of staff in China.