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CDC was never prepared for a crisis like COVID-19, Gottlieb says: "A failure of vision"

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a recent interview with CBS News that the CDC was never prepared to handle a crisis on the scale of COVID-19, and that the U.S. government suffered from "a failure of vision" since the start of the pandemic. The agency thought to be the gold standard for public health is better equipped for data analysis than decisive action, he said.

"I think it's very difficult for an agency to have this self-awareness that they don't have the capacity to respond the way they're being asked," Gottlieb said in an interview with Margaret Brennan, moderator of "Face The Nation" and CBS News' chief foreign affairs correspondent. "And I think it's very difficult for an agency to self-organize differently in a setting of a crisis."

Gottlieb, who led the FDA from 2017 to 2019, is the author of the new book, "Uncontrolled Spread: Why COVID-19 Crushed Us and How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic," which comes out September 21. The book includes criticism of the CDC, and Gottlieb says the agency couldn't meet the moment when a crisis came.

"They're not a logistical organization. CDC has a very retrospective mindset," Gottlieb said. "It's a high-science organization that does deep analytical analysis of data that's oftentimes out of sync to when the decisions need to get made."

The CDC faced consistent criticism through the first year of the pandemic for its mixed messaging on guidance for masking and testing. Gottlieb knocked the agency for failing to quickly develop tests, look for asymptomatic spread and use the correct models to project where the pandemic would go. He also said there was a lack of data to back up public health decisions, leading to further mistakes.

His criticisms echo similar comments from former White House COVID task force members, including Dr. Deborah Birx and former Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger. 

Under the Biden administration, the CDC has continued to fall short on communication of its policies. New guidance in May that Americans no longer needed to wear masks in many situations set off national confusion, and it came soon before the Delta variant led to many mitigation efforts coming back.

Gottlieb acknowledged that no agency alone would have had the operational capability to respond to a crisis as severe as COVID-19. 

"We needed an all-of-the-above approach," he said. "We need to get the public health labs stood up. We needed to simultaneously get the clinical labs stood up, labs inside hospitals. And we needed to get private manufacturers developing test kits that can go in every commercial lab around the country."

"That needed to happen in January [2020]," he added. "Now, CDC should have raised their hand and said, 'We really don't have this.'"

Gottlieb, who serves on Pfizer's board of directors, cited the Operation Warp Speed partnership that developed the COVID vaccines as an example of successful collaboration. That effort brought together teams of scientists and regulators in both government and private industry, and the Defense Department helped scale up manufacturing and distribution.

It's the kind of cooperation that was needed much earlier, he said.

"We needed to do that at day one. We need to get FEMA and the DOD engaged with the CDC in trying to organize a national level response, and that was a failure of political leadership," Gottlieb said. "There were a lot of people who were good political leaders who wrongly assumed the CDC had this mission," he added.

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