“I learned a lot about Covid,” the president boasted Sunday in a video message from the hospital at which he was being treated for the infection. Meanwhile, at least half a dozen members of his inner circle of advisers have also tested positive, following months of disregard for standard public health guidance. This pigheaded indifference to the facts of the pandemic, and unwillingness to change behavior, has not been limited to the Oval Office, though. We’ve seen it creep into the Department of Health and Human Services, too, and even the president’s Coronavirus Task Force.
Now there’s evidence that the Trump administration’s self-destructive impulse not to learn about Covid has even taken hold in government labs that are far from the front lines of public health. Last month, scientists at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, learned that Trump’s appointee as director of the US Geological Survey, James Reilly, had shut down a seemingly apolitical project to study the potential impacts of the new coronavirus on the critically endangered black-footed ferret. There are just a few hundred of these animals left in the wild, and their survival as a species appears to be in question. Covid has already killed thousands of minks, which are in the same family as ferrets, on fur farms in Utah; and in Europe, where similar outbreaks have occurred, there is evidence suggesting that minks have transmitted the disease to humans.
Reilly, a former astronaut and oil-industry geologist, has already tried to alter—if not hamstring—his agency’s vital work on climate science. His intervention in the ferret study suggests he may be hostile to the idea of doing any sort of Covid research whatsoever. That’s despite the fact that the NWHC is the only federal lab in the nation certified to work on high-risk, infectious diseases in wildlife populations; and that it has a long history of investigating potential zoonotic pathogens. In 2014, for example, the center’s researchers were the first to identify strains of avian influenza in the US, providing crucial early information to the poultry industry. They’ve also been studying coronaviruses for more than a decade.