Doctors, scientists who warned officials about oncoming pandemic focus of new Michael Lewis book

In his new book, Michael Lewis profiles people who tried to sound the alarm about COVID-19 as officials failed to act. John Dickerson reports.

Inside Michael Lewis' new book
Inside Michael Lewis' new book 13:25

Michael Lewis has written 14 books, most of them about people who saw things coming – crashes on Wall Street, the next great idea in Major League Baseball, the value of a left tackle in football. His new book, called "The Premonition," follows a group of doctors and scientists who saw the pandemic coming, and raced to sound the alarm. But this is not just a book about the past. The book itself is a premonition.

When Michael Lewis began work on his book about America's failed response to the pandemic, he had a beginning but no middle or end.

John Dickerson: When you were writing this book, it was still unfolding. Had you ever done that before?

Michael Lewis: I did something a little unusual with this book. Into my lap landed, I think, three of the best of the characters I've ever had. And I thought let's just write the people and worry about how the story plays out when the story plays out. I got the richest narrative I think I've ever had.

John Dickerson: What you describe in the book is a need for people who have the risk-taking muscle, who are gonna take risks when the information is bad because they know, if you wait for the information to be good, you'll be going to a lot of funerals. Is that where The Premonition – the title of the book comes from?

Michael Lewis: That's exactly where the title of the book comes from. In this case, I came to appreciate the power of intuition. And it isn't just random intuition, it's trained intuition. You have to be able to look around the corner. You have to be able to see a little further that it's, than is really visible.

John Dickerson: You've done this in a lot of your books, though. You find the person who knows actually what's going on, but who nobody's listening to. There's something about the way institutions work that the voice that knows what's going on is in the wilderness.

Michael Lewis: There are times when working on this it reminded me a bit of The Big Short, where the world has collapsed and you find these people who are actually not just predicting collapse but actually describing exactly how it was gonna collapse 'cause they actually understood it. And they aren't the people you'd expect.

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  Michael Lewis

Lewis writes that at the beginning of the pandemic one of those people was Dr. Charity Dean, a disease control expert, and the assistant director of California's Department of Public Health. In January of 2020, Dean was alarmed when she saw images circulating on social media that appeared to show Chinese authorities welding apartment doors shut to keep residents indoors.

Dr. Charity Dean: And watching those videos on Twitter, 'cause I had no other source of information, I thought, 'They know something we don't and this is real.'

Dean's hunch was that international travel into California's major airports meant the virus was already circulating in her state. She guessed there might be 100 undetected cases of COVID-19. Dean did what she called "dirty math" on her whiteboard, plotting what the virus might do to California in the coming weeks.

John Dickerson: So you're doing the dirty math on the whiteboard and you step back and you think what?

Dr. Charity Dean: I thought, 'Oh my God. I don't believe this. It's 20 million in May.'

Her projection of 20 million cases meant half of California's population would be infected within four months unless officials intervened to slow the virus's path.

John Dickerson: What was the response when you told your bosses that?

Dr. Charity Dean: Disbelief. Shock. And then irritation.

John Dickerson: Why irritation?

Dr. Charity Dean: Because I think it's just really hard for the human brain to grasp the exponential growth of an existential threat.

John Dickerson: They didn't even let you use the word 'pandemic' when you wanted to, is that right?

Dr. Charity Dean: I was asked to not say the word 'pandemic' because it might scare people. But I was scared.

John Dickerson: And you thought people should be too?

Dr. Charity Dean: Absolutely.

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  Dr. Charity Dean

Michael Lewis: Charity, who thinks she's all alone, all alone in the world, aware in January that this pandemic is gonna sweep through the United States and nobody's doing anything about it, including her state government. And nobody will listen to her. And all of a sudden, she's introduced to the Wolverines. When she finds these people, it's, like, yeah, these are my people.

John Dickerson: Who were the Wolverines?

Michael Lewis: The Wolverines were a group of seven doctors, all of whom at one point or another had worked in the White House together, and who stayed in contact and kind of helped the country navigate various, various previous disease outbreaks. But they weren't in the decision making apparatus in the U.S. government.

John Dickerson: Why are they called the Wolverines?

Michael Lewis: They're called the Wolverines because a fellow White House employee dubbed them so. It had some obscure reference to the film "Red Dawn."

Michael Lewis: …where these group of high school kids named the Wolverines go up and try to defeat the invading Russians.

John Dickerson: In other words, the Wolverines had to take things into their own hands 'cause there was nobody to stop the invading force.

Michael Lewis: That's right. They were a guerilla disease fighting operation.

John Dickerson: Because the people actually who were supposed to be fighting the disease weren't doing it.

Michael Lewis: Weren't doing it.

President Trump on January 22, 2020: We have it under control. It's going to be just fine.

In late January, as President Trump and the federal government publicly showed no urgency over the virus, Lewis writes that the Wolverines tried a work-around: getting the states to move. It's why the Wolverines recruited Charity Dean, hoping if she could push California to act, the federal response might quicken.

Michael Lewis: She asks one of them, 'Who's running the pandemic response?' And one of them says, 'Nobody's running the pandemic response. But to the degree that anybody's sort of running the pandemic response, we sort of are'

John Dickerson: This is fantastical, I think, to most Americans. Which is, they think there is something called the Centers for Disease Control. And there are big buildings in Washington that have Health and Human Services. Why did the Wolverines have to do what there are huge institutions designed to do?

Michael Lewis: That's a great question (laughter). That's a very good question, right?. In the first place, the Trump administration abdicated responsibility for running the for the federal government. He just walked away from that. He said, 'Governors, you're on your own.'

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  Dr. Carter Mecher

The Wolverine whose analysis drove the group was Carter Mecher, an unassuming former ICU doctor who worked as a senior medical adviser for the VA in Atlanta.

Dr. Carter Mecher: The frustration was when the pandemic virus emerges anywhere in the world, it's a threat to everyone everywhere. And the messages that we were hearing at the time when we're, you know, looking at the outbreak in China was that this was not a threat to the American public.

During the Bush administration, Mecher had helped write a detailed national pandemic response plan. Lewis reports that as the COVID threat grew in January 2020, Mecher spent his days burrowed with his home computer in suburban Atlanta, from five in the morning until 11 at night, digging for data from open sources to make back-of-the-envelope calculations. He calls it redneck epidemiology.

Dr. Carter Mecher: It really was meant to convey being resourceful, to use whatever data we could get our hands on, to try to make sense, cause really that's what we were trying to do.

Michael Lewis: This is the big thing. The big thing is he knows we need to get an answer fast. We need to get an answer before we know for sure. Because by the time we know for sure, we'll be overrun. He starts to Google websites in Wuhan that are in Chinese. And he puts them in Google translate to find body counts, to find how many people have died. And when they died. And he finds that the Chinese are misreporting dates of deaths and numbers of deaths. Carter's able to figure out that this isn't just a bat infecting a person. These are people infecting other people at an incredible rate.

Six weeks before President Trump declared a national emergency, Mecher wrote in an email to the Wolverines on January 28: "Any way you cut it, this is going to be bad… the projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe."

Michael Lewis: Carter Mecher said, "This is, this thing is frightening. And I can show you why it's frightening." He wasn't just, just Chicken Little. He had a reason. He saw, he saw the sky falling. And he actually could explain how it was gonna fall.

In February, 700 people were infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, while it was anchored in Tokyo Bay. Mecher determined the infection rate on the ship was 20%.

John Dickerson: And what happened when you plugged that into what a virus that operated that way would look like if it hit the U.S. health system?

Dr. Carter Mecher: 300,000 dead is, is a rough approximation based on the Diamond Princess.

John Dickerson: Who should be the one with their hand on the bell saying, 'We gotta move, this is bigger than we thought?

Dr. Carter Mecher: CDC.

John Dickerson: And they weren't ringing the bell.

Dr. Carter Mecher: We didn't hear them ringing the bell.

The CDC wasn't just slow to respond. It bungled the most important tool required in the fight: testing for the virus. UC-San Francisco biochemist Joe DeRisi decided to build his own testing lab to help California.

Michael Lewis: And he said, the Centers for Disease Control doesn't know what it's doing. We can't control the virus unless we know where it is. We can't know where it is unless we test. So we're gonna do the tests.

To push for action, Charity Dean employed her whiteboard, Carter Mecher his redneck epidemiology. DeRisi employed fancier tools. He worked at something called the biohub for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

John Dickerson: Had you ever built clinical testing labs before?

Joe DeRisi: Absolutely not (laughs). And so we were actually gonna have to build this plane, send it up in the air partially built, and learn how to fly it while we're building it in the air.

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  Joe DeRisi

They built the lab in eight days. It could produce COVID test results in 24 hours and they offered its services for free to county public health offices across California, which is when DeRisi discovered how starved for resources public health offices were.

Joe DeRisi: We had a whole bunch of clinical results they were sending to a county. And we sent them by fax because that's how they officially receive results.

John Dickerson: Did you even have a fax machine?

Joe DeRisi: No. But we, we got curbside delivery at Best Buy and were able to buy a $300 fax machine. It was the first fax machine I'd seen in years. But the problem was, after we faxed these results, we got a call the next day sayin', 'Why did you only return half the results? 'We realized that their circa early '90s fax machine only had a page buffer that could hold about half the results we sent. So we literally went back to Best Buy, got another curbside delivery, and drove up a new fax machine up to that county public health office because they didn't have the budget to buy their own new one.

Michael Lewis: I chose my story, my characters, to dramatize those pockets of deficiency in our society so we could see them. Cause they saw them. I just followed the characters.

There were pockets of success. Charity Dean helped convince Governor Gavin Newsom to shut down California on March 19, the first state to do so.

California has registered 3.7 million COVID cases to date, not the 20 million once feared. Dean credits Carter Mecher's vision with giving her the courage to push. So does fellow-Wolverine Dr. Matt Hepburn, who ultimately led vaccine development for the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed. But still, nearly 600,000 Americans have died.

Michael Lewis: It's like a superhero story where the superheroes seem to lose in the end. They're there to fight this pandemic and to save American lives. They don't appear to do it. But the little wrinkle on the end of it is you know they learned things that are gonna help us the next time around.

Rapid fire questions with Michael Lewis 01:11

The stories of each character's struggle to be heard highlight what Lewis says is a key point: public institutions are ill-equipped to move fast enough to handle a large-scale pandemic. His characters worry the country is still vulnerable.  

John Dickerson: What connects them, the characters?

Michael Lewis: They love life. They realize how important it is. And they want to save it. And so they all have some, this emotional component of when they hear 600,000 Americans died. It's not just a number.

John Dickerson: Michael writes that all of you are motivated by your, your love of life. Do you agree with that characterization?

Dr. Carter Mecher: My training was in critical care medicine, so I operated ICUs. And in an ICU, what I got to see and what I got to witness was the final struggle for a lotta human beings. I got to see the last, last days, last weeks, last moments of a lot of people. And, you know, in sports they talk about, you know (emotional) – sorry. They talk about, like, you know, players leaving it all on the field. And you know when I would see these patients in the ICU, I would watch them in that struggle. And they left everything on the field, everything. And you know, my question for us is, almost 600,000 people in this country have left everything on the field. And the question is, have we?

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich. Associate producer, Jacqueline Williams. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Matthew Lev.