Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews former Sen. Bill Frist

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviewed former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) who outlined in 2005 his fears that we would be facing a major deadly "pandemic of pandemics" and that we needed to take action.

Some excerpts from the interview below: 

On why he was motivated then and why little of consequence happened

FORMER SEN. BILL FRIST: Before coming to the Senate back in 1994, I spent 15 years as a heart and lung transplant surgeon. The things that would kill my patients then, or come close to killing them, were these viruses. So I spent 15 years studying the viruses and how to defeat them every day. When I got to the United States Senate, not much had been done on HIV/AIDS. Yet at the time, it was killing as many as 3 million people around the world every year. Three million people. The United States did mobilize at that point in time and put together a plan that successfully, at least stopped, slowed down and ultimately diminished the spread of HIV/AIDS. So I knew it could be done. Back to viruses — they're  cagey, they’re fast moving, they move faster than us. With our increasing transportation being able to travel around the world with our increased urbanization, it is inevitable that these cagey viruses were going to rear their head. And we were grossly unprepared at that standpoint, at that point in time 15 years ago, and we're unprepared today. Hopefully that's going to change here here shortly. Why didn't we do it? It requires long term thinking. It is inevitable. We will have future pandemics in the future unless we do something that is big, that is bold, but clearly possible and something we can afford today. This time around, we've got to get it right. 


Clemons: I want to read just a short clip from your piece. It says: “For what the world now faces it has not seen even in the most harrowing episodes of the Middle Ages or the great wars of the last century. And not only are we as unprepared for rampant epidemics then, we have not taken sufficient note of the fact that though individually each might be devastating, they are susceptible of either purposeful or accidental combination, in which case they could be devastating almost beyond imagination.” ... You saw a biothreat either evolving naturally or being created by governments in the bioweapons area, and you said we needed a Manhattan Project to respond either to willful acts of bioterrorism or accidents. Do you still believe that?

FRIST: Yes, I am even more so today, and today we have the technology to do it. We have the know-how to do it. Back then, being the only physician in the United States Senate, there just weren't a lot of people listening. That same talk that you read from, I gave over 20 different times across the country. Now we have a teachable moment, we know what to do. We're seeing it play out before us. We can make that investment now. In that paper, I also made the call that it would come from Asia very specifically, and it was very obvious because of the congestion there. The relationship from animal to animal, and animal to human — and that leap will be made and will be made in the future, unless we act aggressively now. We need to put out the fire that's underway. But at the same time, we can't lose sight of the fact that we need to invest now for that next pandemic which will come — I'll say it again — will come again in the future, regardless of what happens with the current pandemic underway. 


Clemons: I have interviewed Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care — Presented by Indivior — CDC panel approves boosters for some, but not based on jobs Fauci: 'Worst time' for a government shutdown is in middle of pandemic The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Government shutdown fears increase as leaders dig in MORE about a dozen times in the last many years, and he is often basically trumpeted the same alarm you are that this is coming, that we're going to have problems. He’s been worried about respiratory viruses for a long time and says that we need to move out of just reacting and get a research effort together that would create a platform virus that would take these things on in advance. Are you two aligned on that front? What's stopping this common sense idea from moving forward?

FRIST: Well, politically, and it's not just the partisan environment, it is a lack of long-term thinking and therefore, for our political figures to understand, to take action, to respond, we need to have a mass understanding advocacy from the American people who now everybody is feeling it today. The pain, the suffering, especially our most vulnerable. So now is the time to do it. It takes a coordinated plan to do it. ... We need to continue our partnerships with people like the World Health Organization. Because viruses don't have visas, and pandemics don't know borders at all. 


Clemons: Senator, I want to ask your view on the tug of war that seems to be breaking out between those that want to give this virus more of a chance to be beaten down, knocked out of our society and controlled, contained, tracked, get testing in place versus those who want to open up the economy and open up the aperture of what they're willing to tolerate by way of further infections and deaths. What is your view of this tug of war?

FRIST: Well, the challenge that we have today is the biology of the virus. And whatever happens with our economy by definition is going to follow what we do with the virus, and the virus has a mind of its own. We have two tracks. The public health track says shut everything down. That's going to save the most lives. The economic track says, well, we have to have a dose of reality here. This virus is really deadly to maybe only 2 or 3 percent, we don’t know what it is of the population. The other 98 percent need to be able to live a semi-normal life, going back to work in order to put food on the table, to escape the travesty of poverty, which also has a huge economic cost. The policymakers have to operate in both of those. Some states are more on the public health side. Some more on the economic side. The more science we have, the more testing — and this nation has failed in terms of testing from the top to the bottom — but the more testing we have and that we create, it allows you to get the information to more smartly open the government, to open the businesses, to get people back to work, and get people back to school. So I think we don't have enough data yet, but it's coming in fast every day. I think we need an open data platform today that we can feed the best of testing, of science, of surveillance, of symptoms in to — and then gradually begin to open things beginning in about a couple of weeks. In those areas that audit risk for a surge. And with that titrate how much opening up? Closing down? Opening up? And closing down — starting with target populations. For example, most hospitals in the country today are totally empty, or 90 percent or 80 percent empty. I can see very soon beginning to open those hospitals, bringing our health personnel back to work, maybe starting with a younger cohort than an older cohort. But I think that could begin in about two to three weeks in certain parts of the country, not at the federal level, but in certain parts of the country. 


Clemons: I know you've advocated a "national response portal," and data is so important to make that work. Testing is so important. In short form, you know how this government works. Why is getting the testing frame right so difficult? Do you have any solutions that you know of that we should be considering to get testing fixed? 

FRIST: I think, No. 1, the leadership of this country should stop telling the American people that we have enough tests today. They've been telling them that for three weeks. That slows everybody down across the board — the scientists, the laboratories. So we need number one to say we still need more testing. No. 2, I think we are making real progress today, but I think tax credits and tax incentives can still be given to those people who are bringing testing on board today, to accelerate it. No. 3. I think that a code can be given, an ICD type code, ICD type 10, is just a code where you can get reimbursement for both the testing but also the surveillance and participating in what’s called contact testing. So those are three things that we can do, that we should do. But we need to put that on the table as we go forward.