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How Mistakes, Missed Opportunities Allowed COVID-19 To Ravage The U.S.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Yesterday, before extremist, pro-Trump rioters, many without masks, stormed the Capitol building, I recorded an interview about the mistakes, missed opportunities and behind-the-scenes struggles that allowed the coronavirus to spread out of control across the U.S. The virus doesn't care about politics or the future of our democracy. The COVID numbers are spiking. And a new, more deadly strain has shown up in the U.S. Yesterday, we broke another single-day record for COVID deaths in the U.S., 3,963.

I spoke with Lawrence Wright about his new article "The Plague Year," which is published in the current issue of The New Yorker. His article helps answer the question, why is it that America accounts for 20% of all COVID deaths although America has only 4% of the world's population? A few years ago, in what now seems like a prescient move, Wright started working on a novel about a flu pandemic caused by a virus that kills 45% of the people it infects. By the time the novel was published last April, we were living through the COVID pandemic.

There are many epidemiological and political parallels between what he imagined in his novel, called "The End Of October," and what has happened in reality. He did a lot of research for the novel that has contributed to his reporting. Wright has also reported extensively on terrorism. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2000 book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda And The Road To 9/11." It was adapted into a Hulu series starring Jeff Daniels and Alec Baldwin. Wright is also the author of a book investigating Scientology called "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, And The Prison Of Belief," which was adapted into an HBO documentary. Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So planning around the virus has been very chaotic under the Trump administration. President Biden and his administration are about to take over. Do you know what the reaction is within the CDC that Trump is leaving?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: (Laughter) I can't quote any of my sources. But I can tell you that they feel like the fever has broken. And, you know, the CDC - you know, when I was a young reporter, I did several stories out of the Centers for Disease Control. I lived in Atlanta. I thought it was a noble institution. It was the example of enlightened government at its best and above all other health institutions in the world. You know, it had the greatest reputation.

The people who worked there, you know, I thought they were just so remarkable. They were brave. They go off into these disease hot spots that I wouldn't want to get close to. They were, you know, brilliant and humble. And to see that proud institution so handicapped, so brought down so low, it's just heartbreaking. So you know, it's time for new leadership not just at the national level, but at the CDC. And the people that work there should be given the opportunity to do what they do best.

GROSS: You write about moments when events might have turned out differently, turning points in the pandemic. One of the early ones was when the head of the Chinese CDC, George Fu Gao, assured the head of the American CDC, Robert Redfield, that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus and that each case arose from exposure to exotic game at markets in China. Redfield was skeptical and offered to send a CDC team to China to help. But that never happened. Why not?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, this is a question for the Chinese. But, you know, the same thing happened with the SARS outbreak in 2003. When that disease appeared, Chinese hid symptomatic patients from world health authorities. They took them out of hospitals and put them into ambulances and checked them into hotels. And new health rules were written to try to address that kind of cover-up. And once again, when presented with a novel virus, in this case, the Chinese did something very similar. They dissembled about the nature of the disease. Redfield even questioned his counterpart on that first call on January 3 because several family members were ill at the same time. And were they all in the same wet market in Wuhan contacting wild game? It seemed unlikely. But Gao assured him that there was no human-to-human transmission.

The other thing, Redfield wanted to send a team into China to help out, but also discern where this virus came from and what were its distinctive characteristics. Gao said, you know, that he was not able to invite him, but, you know, appeal to higher authorities, which Redfield did repeatedly, as did our secretary of state and others. And the Chinese would never allow that. Had that happened, Redfield is convinced that he would have learned in early January that this disease was spread through asymptomatic transmission. In other words, people who don't seem to be sick are carrying the virus and spreading it. And as it turns out, 50 to 70% of the people who are affected by this virus are in that category. Had we known that, we would have addressed the question of asymptomatic transmission early on. But we really didn't know it definitively until the end of February.

GROSS: So one of the people who you write about, Matt Pottinger, was a deputy national security adviser who became aware of the virus early on. Can you talk about who he is and how he was trying to get the government to start preparing for the pandemic?

WRIGHT: Matt Pottinger was a - I guess it's notable that he was a reporter. He had worked for Reuters and Wall Street Journal in China when the SARS epidemic broke out in 2003. And then he - at the age of 32, he joined the Marines, (laughter) surprising everybody, spent several tours in Afghanistan. And then he was a protege of Michael Flynn, who was the first national security adviser in the Trump White House. So Flynn was out practically overnight. But Pottinger stayed through five other (laughter) national security advisers and quietly became one of the most important voices in American foreign policy.

Early on, at the outbreak of the, you know, this new virus in China, he began to monitor Chinese social media. He speaks fluent Mandarin. So he was seeing a big difference between what the Chinese government was saying and what was going on in social media. And then he went to a Chinese New Year party with a lot of Chinese dissidents and former China diplomats. And there was a lot of alarm among those people. So he started calling his old sources, you know, doctors who were working in China and so on, and getting a totally different picture. This is at a time when the American intelligence community was essentially uninterested in this virus.

And so it was Pottinger who arranged the first - what became the corona task force, bringing elements of the government together to talk about how to address this. And eventually, they were meeting every single day. So I think many of the things that have happened that were effective - the travel ban, the advocacy for a mask and so on, and promoting Operation Warp Speed, Matt Pottinger deserves singular credit for.

GROSS: He had been a journalist with Reuters and The Wall Street Journal before he was in the military and before he worked with Michael Flynn or in the Trump administration. Do you think it was helpful that he had a journalism background, that he had some understanding of what a fact is and how to handle government distortions or exaggerations of facts?

WRIGHT: Well, I think it was critical. You know, for one thing, you know, a reporter knows how to pick up the phone and call people to ask for information rather than just, you know, relying on the National Security Agency to listen in on conversations. The other thing about him is that, you know, he was - when he was in China, you know, he was beaten up by a government goon, you know, when he spoke to a whistleblower. And he - in order to protect his sources, he had to flush notes down the toilet. He was totally aware of how China would try to stage manage this outbreak. And so, yeah, there was - it also happened to be the case that Matt's wife was an epidemiologist who had worked at CDC and his brother was an infectious disease doctor in Washington state. So he used these informal sources, you know, people - doctors that he knew in China and members of his family, to find out what was really going on.

GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article in the magazine is titled "The Plague Year." We recorded our interview yesterday morning. Last night, Matt Pottinger, Trump's deputy national security adviser, who Wright has been talking about, resigned in objection to Trump's encouragement of yesterday's violent protests at and in the Capitol building. We'll hear more of our interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is called "The Plague Year," and it's about the mistakes and behind-the-scenes struggles that enabled the coronavirus to spread across America. He's also the author of a novel called "The End Of October" about a flu pandemic that kills 45% of the people it infects. He started writing that novel years before the current pandemic, but the novel was actually published in the early days of the pandemic.

The government had federal stockpiles of various emergency equipment and PPE. How come they never freed it up? Was there a big debate about that within the administration?

WRIGHT: Yes. It's supposed to be a repository for emergency situations like the pandemic, and it's supposed to be a place where states can call upon the need for, you know, emergency supplies - ventilators, PPE, that sort of thing. What happened instead in March - you know, every week there is a call between the president and the governors. And, of course, the governors are all, you know, panicked about what's happening with this virus. And it had spread, you know, irregularly. It was it was in Washington state. It was - you know, it was beginning to show up in New York in frightening amounts.

So they feared an onslaught that they wouldn't be prepared for. But they expected that the government would step in and provide. You know, FEMA would be on the case, the FDA. You know, there would be - they'd be able to withdraw PPE and ventilators from the storehouse. There were so many expectations that they had about, you know, what was going to happen. And the president assured them that we're behind you. And then he explained what he meant by that, which was we'll support you, but, you know, as for PPE and that sort of thing, you should get it yourselves.

And so suddenly, we had - instead of one pandemic, we had 50 state epidemics thrown into the laps of these governors who were totally unprepared. So suddenly, they had to go out on the market and try to find PPE, mainly in China. That's where, you know, most of it is made. And they were bidding against each other. They would put in a bid for, you know, a million facemasks, say, Michigan. And then suddenly New York would put in - would top that. It was - Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, said it was like being on eBay.

And then when they actually were able to supposedly purchase the PPE - for instance, with the state of Massachusetts, they bought several million masks and a number of ventilators from China - when it came into the port of New York, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Association, seized it and paid a premium to the supplier. So, you know, the next time the governor of Massachusetts made an order for masks, he sent the New England football team team plane to China to pick it up. And then they brought it back to Logan Airport and smuggled it away to hide it from the government. And this was typical. This story is replicated in virtually all of the 50 states - the governor scrambling to try to find a way to buy enough personal protective equipment for the frontline health workers at exorbitant prices because there was no national plan.

GROSS: There was a debate within the Trump administration about whether to shut down travel from China and then from Europe. The debate was partially about stopping the virus versus killing the economy. Can you talk about the debate within the Trump administration between people who were arguing, we have to stop the virus, and people who were arguing, it's going to hurt the economy and create a global depression?

WRIGHT: Essentially, there were four camps in this. The public health people typically did not believe that travel bans were useful or effective. You know, they felt that there was a need for medicine and so on to flow freely and that doctors needed to go in and out of infected areas. They thought it was stigmatized countries that were facing a contagion like this. So there was reluctance inside the public health contingent. The economic people and the Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget and the chief of staff at the time, Mick Mulvaney, were fiercely opposed to any kind of travel ban and - because, you know, it blocks trade. You know, it would kill the travel industry.

You know, there were economic ramifications that they were really fearful of. And, you know, then the State Department was sort of neutral on that. They just mainly wanted to get the diplomats out of Wuhan. And then there was Matt Pottinger. He had the view, which was unorthodox, that a travel ban was the only thing we could do immediately to try to stop the transmission into the United States. And he eventually was able to swing the argument around and even he swung the president around with great reluctance.

GROSS: Trump takes a lot of credit for shutting down travel from China. When asked early on, like, what have you done to stop the pandemic, he always said, you know, I shut down China travel. That had a really big effect. What was his role in doing that? Did he have to be convinced?

WRIGHT: He did have to be convinced, but he was convinced, I mean, you know, he does deserve some credit for that. Unfortunately, the time we bought to, you know, try to slow the transmission inside the United States was squandered. So it made in the end, no difference at all.

GROSS: Let's talk about the coronavirus task force, which initially held almost daily public briefings. And sometimes Trump would attend and sometimes he wouldn't. What exists of the task force now? Does it still exist?

WRIGHT: Nominally. It doesn't really meet. You know, it was created essentially in the National Security Council by Matt Pottinger, who assembled a group of, you know, Cabinet officers and deputies to try to formulate some kind of policy to address this novel influenza that was circulating in China. And that eventually became the task force. At first, it was headed by Alex Azar, the head of Health and Human Services. And then Trump bumped him off and appointed Mike Pence in the role. And then - and really it came to an end when Scott Atlas, you know, a presidential adviser who was a radiologist and had no experience in epidemiologist, he monopolized the president's advice. And they put him on the task force. And it essentially brought an end to it as an effective organization.

GROSS: Scott Atlas, who became Trump's chief medical adviser, has some very out-of-the-mainstream views about medicine. What are some of those views?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, he - first of all, you know, and there's something to be said about his argument about keeping the schools open. But he also believed in allowing people to get infected in order to create herd immunity following the example of Sweden. And, you know, the truth is we are kind of following the example of Sweden and that it's - the chaos that has enveloped the country because of the divided messaging spearheaded by the president and people like Scott Atlas has undermined a clear path through this pandemic.

GROSS: Do you think herd immunity is an attractive theory for President Trump? Because it basically means you don't have to do anything. The virus will kind of spread on its own. And then we'll develop herd immunity. So you don't need policies. You don't need to be vigilant. You don't need to wear masks. You don't need to organize things. You know, it's just going to happen.

WRIGHT: Well, the president hasn't said that, but his policies demonstrate that that's exactly what he feels. And, you know, his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, essentially said that. You know, he said that, you know, the virus will do what it's going to do. And it was an abject surrender, essentially. And also, it absolves the administration of any responsibility. From the very beginning, the Trump administration has tried to deny any responsibility for this at all, first of all by throwing the responsibility into the hands of the governors who were totally unprepared for it and absolving themselves of any kind of accountability for what would happen.

It's - you know, every country has struggled with this virus. We're not alone. But no other country had the resources that America did and the plans already in the bank to how to handle it. And so the catastrophe in America is not just because we are, you know, 4% of the world's population and 20% of the deaths. It's that we failed to make use of our own resources. We had plans in place. We could have confronted this virus effectively, but we failed in that.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded yesterday morning with Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article, "The Plague Year," is in the current issue. His novel about a pandemic even more deadly than COVID is called "The End Of October." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is called "The Plague Year," and it's about the mistakes and behind the scenes struggles that enabled the coronavirus to spread across America. Before the pandemic, actually years before the pandemic started, he started writing a novel about a flu pandemic that was more lethal than COVID. And that novel, which is called "The End of October," was published during the pandemic last April.

You know, you say that once Scott Atlas became Trump's chief medical adviser, Trump stopped speaking to other health advisers. What impact do you think that had that he shut out the real epidemiologists, the real infectious disease experts?

WRIGHT: I think the message of Scott Atlas that has been taken to heart by the Trump administration is surrender. The virus will do what it's going to do. We can't do anything effective to stop it, so why do anything? And I want to - you know, I'll take exception to the, you know, Operation Warp Speed and, you know, the attempt to get the vaccine out and into American arms. You know, give them credit for that. But, you know, the absence of leadership that would have curtailed the, you know, the spread of the virus to some extent, that's simply gone.

GROSS: Deborah Birx, who was on the coronavirus task force, ended up being a very controversial figure, criticized by both the left and the right. What can you tell us about her and why she was criticized by both sides?

WRIGHT: You know, it's a fascinating story about Dr. Birx. She was the U.S. global AIDS ambassador and had been very effective in curbing the spread of AIDS in - especially in Africa and other developing countries. And she had the reputation of being tough and parsimonious and maybe a little harsh sometimes when she wanted to get her way. And that's why Matt Pottinger enlisted her to be the coronavirus task force director. And she was a highly esteemed figure in public health circles until she took that position and stood beside the president when he made some of his more outlandish statements. For instance, that iconic moment when he talked about, you know, injecting bleach or letting sunlight inside the body somehow. And, you know, the camera caught her looking so pained. People attacked her for being complicit in that and, you know...

GROSS: Because she didn't say anything. She didn't interrupt and say, that's ridiculous. That's dangerous.

WRIGHT: She said that it would - probably not an effective therapy, you know, or a treatment. But what was she to say? You know, what she might have said in private people didn't hear, but she was an effective advocate. And then Scott Atlas came along and - with his theories that were totally counter to public health orthodoxy. And she and Atlas had it out in the Oval Office. And it was pretty clear that the president was going to side with Atlas.

And so Birx decided to take to the road. And it's interesting. She was the only federal official who actually was going state to state, talking to governors, talking to university authorities, public health people, tribal chiefs. You know, she went to 43 states and visited more than 30 universities, driving around with Irum Zaidi, her chief epidemiologist - who likes to drive fast. She got a ticket for driving - she didn't get a ticket. She got off from a ticket in Texas, which is hard to do. She was driving 110 trying to get to an appointment in New Mexico.

But, you know, they spent - they covered the United States three times, you know. And I think it was a noble effort on her part, you know, talking to people on a state-to-state level in person, giving them advice about how to - the most effective means of trying to stop the the epidemic in their own state.

GROSS: You write that Trump subverted his health agencies by installing political operatives who meddled with the science and suppressed the truth. Give us an example of that.

WRIGHT: Well, the best example is Michael Caputo. And he was appointed the chief information officer for Health and Human Services. And, of course, HHS is the Cabinet position that oversees the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration. And the person who is in charge of messaging for that entire installment of our public health - Michael Caputo. He had - he was the best friend of Roger Stone, the convicted political operative and prankster. He had worked in Russia, where he spent some time working for Gazprom.

And allegedly his - one of his tasks was to try to polish the image of Vladimir Putin. You know, this is the person that was appointed to oversee all of the messaging. And one of the things that he wanted to do was have an ad campaign using celebrities talking about how the president is treating, you know, confronting the coronavirus. And in order to do this, it was essentially a political ad, but he took $300 million out of the CDC budget to fund this. And it never got off the ground because he couldn't find the celebrities that were appropriate for their message.

GROSS: Let's compare that. I know the sums are really different. But Peter Navarro, the trade adviser, wrote a memo at the end of February proposing a $3 billion supplemental budget appropriation to accelerate the vaccines, PPE for frontline workers and effective therapeutics. And Mick Mulvaney, Trump's acting chief of staff, decided $800 million was enough for now. So instead of getting 3 billion, it was 800 million to accelerate the vaccines, PPE and effective therapeutics. What was the thinking behind that? What was that - what went on behind the scenes in that incident?

WRIGHT: Well, in that incident, the - you know, the money people won, they didn't want to hurt the economy. And they needed to do a gesture that would show that the administration was paying attention. And $800 million was no more than a gesture. was no more than a gesture. It wouldn't even be enough to get the vaccine through one trial. You know, it was a feckless proposal. And even - it's rare in Congress to see, you know, senators from the Republican Party arguing that more money was needed.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. I want to talk with you about your novel, which is about a pandemic. And you learned a lot about pandemics from writing that novel. But first, we have to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. He has a new article called "The Plague Year," which is about the pandemic. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is called "The Plague Here." And it's about the mistakes and behind-the-scenes struggles that enabled the coronavirus to spread across America. He's also the author of a novel called "The End Of October." That's about an even more lethal pandemic that kind of decimates the world and creates chaos in every aspect of life and government around the world. And he started writing that years before the current pandemic. But it was published last April during the COVID pandemic.

Why did you want to write a novel about a pandemic before we actually had one?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, I - as I said, I had written stories out of CDC when I was a young reporter. And I was enchanted, honestly, by the world of public health and the kinds of people that are involved in it. And it seemed like a place where you could find a real modern-day hero. And I also thought - you know, when I was young, I read about the 1918 flu. And, you know, this was an interesting experience - pandemic, you know, that was largely forgotten until fairly recent times.

And, you know, it killed between 40 and 100 million people, 675,000 Americans died. That's more than all the American soldiers in all the wars of the 20th century, you know? And yet it was essentially buried in public consciousness. And I thought, if there's anything that is really a threat to civilization, it's another pandemic like 1918. So I began researching it. And I was asking my sources, you know, if something like the 1918 flu came back, would we be any better prepared than our ancestors? And I was pretty shocked by the answer.

GROSS: What was the answer?

WRIGHT: Well, there's - with a new pandemic, a novel virus we have - that we have no vaccine for and no effective therapeutics, we'd be in exactly the same boat. And the only way you can deal with it at the beginning until you have vaccines and therapeutics is through what are called non-pharmaceutical interventions. And that is social distancing, handwashing and masks (laughter), you know? The only difference in a century, you know, is that we have better masks. But, you know, we're in the same boat. We don't have the tools. Now...

GROSS: We have a vaccine now...

WRIGHT: Well, we do now but...

GROSS: ...In theory.


WRIGHT: Yeah. But - and, you know, science hasn't - I mean, in 1918, science barely knew what a virus was. So you know, we're far advanced in that. But I think that we had developed a kind of complacency with the heroic achievements of medicine in the 20th century. We thought that we had put infectious diseases to bed. And - but that was an illusion.

GROSS: As part of your research, you did a lot of research about earlier plagues and pandemics. What's the worst one that you researched?

WRIGHT: Well, you know, I think, you know, they're all horrible. But, you know, I was really fascinated by the Black Death in Italy in the 14th century. And I had a conversation with Gianna Pomata, who is a medical historian, used to be at Hopkins before she retired and returned to Bologna, her hometown. And I had asked her what our current plague reminds her of. And she said that mostly it reminded her of the black plague, not in terms of the scale of the death - I mean, the black plague killed a third of Europe - but in terms of the kind of consequences that might be available.

You know, the Black Death essentially began the process of ending the Middle Ages. All the presumptions that, you know, we had about the society, about religion, about, you know, the medieval medicine, they were thrown out the window. And what eventually replaced the Middle Ages was a renaissance. So Gianna was hopeful. And it inspired me to think that, you know, we could maybe have a kind of renaissance politically and economically, because we've seen how our country has failed in so many different ways. And the pandemic has been kind of like an X-ray into the broken places in our society.

GROSS: But we need the right people to recognize that. We need the right government to recognize that and rebuild.

WRIGHT: Well, it's up to us to make those things happen. I mean, I'm not saying that because we've had this tragedy and we failed so miserably, we're going to have a renaissance. But I am saying that we know that we need one. And, you know, there have been times in America's history when - you know, like World War II, where, you know,

WRIGHT: we built the most powerful economy in the history of the world in the Great Depression, where we reshaped our society in the middle of the Depression, making it, you know, more just and equal. So - and - but then, you know, there's Vietnam, and there's the invasion of Iraq where we, you know, we had largely failed. And, you know, it's up to us as a people to address the the failings that we see in our society and make a better country.

GROSS: In creating your novel, did you want to create a competent or an incompetent federal government?

WRIGHT: (Laughter) I wanted to create a government that was - that resembled the government we have. I made a little calendar on my computer, and it was essentially keyed to what happened in 1918. So I superimposed the experience of 1918 on what would happen now. And so, roughly speaking, you know, if you look through the events in my novel, they mirror what happened, you know, a century before. And then I also used, you know, the current time that we live in as a way of, you know, addressing, how are we going to handle such a thing?

And that was - you know, that's - I wanted it to be a kind of cautionary tale. Unfortunately (laughter), at the time it came out, you know, we were already, you know, swimming in this sea of the virus. And, you know, the book - you know, people thought I was exploiting the epidemic. And there was one presenter in England who said, I suppose no one would pay any attention to this at all if it weren't for this pandemic...


WRIGHT: ...As if it was some sort of sinister publishing plot on my part to put out a book and then, when all the bookstores are closed...

GROSS: Yeah, right - yeah, a brilliant scheme.

Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Lawrence Wright. His new article in The New Yorker is titled "The Plague Year," and it's about the mistakes and behind-the-scenes struggles that enabled the coronavirus to spread across America. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is called "The Plague Year," and it chronicles the first year of the COVID epidemic. He's also the author of a novel about a flu pandemic. He started that novel before COVID, but it was published last April during the pandemic.

What did you get right in your novel that foreshadowed how the Trump administration responded to the pandemic?

WRIGHT: Oh, a lot of weird things - you know, I - for instance, you know, a task force was set up, and the vice president was put in charge. You know, that - a lot of people pointed to that. To me, there were a lot of things I knew would happen and did happen because I had done the research. And I talked to the experts, and they laid out for me what would happen. And so I used their - you know, that kind of background to paint a portrait of what would happen to our country if we had this - had a pandemic like 1918.

And so when people say that, you know, that it's eerie that I made it so similar to what actually happened, it's not eerie. It's just, you know, using the research that I'd done to imagine how we're actually going to be effected. And, you know, all of the information was available to the government that I used. In fact, you know, there were tabletop exercises that I studied that were done by even the Trump administration that would show, how would we behave in the face of a pandemic? And we behaved exactly as they feared.

GROSS: So in your novel, you created a virus task force headed by the vice president. The coronavirus task force was headed by Vice President Pence. Pence is a - it's hard to know what's ever going on (laughter) in his mind. You know, so - I've often wondered, and I don't know if you can answer this. Like, when the task force was more visible and he was heading it, what was his reaction when Trump would make baseless claims about the virus or say outrageous things, like maybe we should consider, you know, drinking bleach or, you know, getting sunlight into our body to kill the virus? I don't really know what his knowledge of science is and what he actually - the extent to which he actually believes the science or believes Trump on these things.

WRIGHT: Well, he is a cipher. But I talked to, you know, members of the task force, and they said that he was - you know, he ran the meeting very effectively. He was open to ideas. Governors - you know, he was a former governor himself of Indiana. And, you know, when governors were appealing for federal help, they would often call Pence. And, you know, he was at least sympathetic in trying to help them out. But as Trump's No. 2, essentially what he's done is just carry out the president's directives and, you know, has not been an effective counter, even though he might have been sympathetic to the plight of governors and others who turned to him.

GROSS: Your father and your grandparents lived through the 1918 flu pandemic. Did they pass on any stories about it?

WRIGHT: No. You know, that's another thing. You go to the graveyards anywhere, like in central Kansas, where my father came from. In 1918, tombstones were, you know, all over the place. And I - you know, I think of it as being like the iridium layer in the earth where the comet hit and killed all the dinosaurs (laughter).

It's - there's a line that goes through - a year that travels through all the cemeteries of the world in 1918. And yet people didn't remark on it. Even my father, who was three, was sick by it. And his father was very ill - didn't die. But it was unremarked.

And, you know - well, it was at the beginning of the 20th century. A lot of contagious diseases were still present. And, you know, childhood deaths and so on were common. So perhaps, you know, the onslaught of, you know, mortal disease wasn't as big a deal then, although it killed so many more Americans than the war did.

But - and the president never even - you know, President Wilson never even talked about the flu, even though he got it and it may have led to his stroke. So, you know, it was something that was totally buried. And not just in America, but all over the world. People did not want to remember it.

GROSS: There was a polio epidemic when you were very young. And you were paralyzed for about a day; your legs were paralyzed.


GROSS: And it might have been polio. You don't really know. And you'll probably - you may never know. But can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like and then what it was like to actually get the Salk vaccine - the polio vaccine - and know that you would be safe from polio?

WRIGHT: You know, this is - it's a mixed story in some ways, Terry, because, you know, when I woke up that morning and couldn't move my legs, you know, I certainly thought it was polio. And I was - it was - and the doctor, back in those days, you had house calls. And, you know, there was nothing he could do.

But I had had a tetanus shot shortly before that. So it could have been a reaction to the tetanus shot. It could have been Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is a feature of - you know, sometimes of vaccinations. And - or it could have been an allergy to the horse serum in which tetanus vaccine was grown. And I didn't learn that until later.

Salk vaccine was a salvation for a whole generation of children. Like, I - you know, I remember March of Dimes. I used to - you know, we used to go around with these little envelopes and collecting dimes and sending them in to the federal government. And that's how, you know, President Roosevelt got on the dime; because he had founded the organization that the March of Dimes became.

So I had ambivalent feelings about vaccine. The polio vaccine certainly saved innumerable children from a life of being handicapped or even confined to an iron lung. But on the other hand, there are side effects.

So I was very interested to see what was going on with this new vaccine. And the reason I'm enthusiastic about it and intend to get a vaccination as soon as possible, is it is a totally new means of delivery. There are flu vaccines, you know, for instance, grown in chicken eggs and, you know, other vaccines grown in horse serum. You know, these are things that not everybody tolerates that well.

This is an entirely new platform for vaccines of the future. It's a little tablet of RNA called messenger RNA. And I think it's going to be a solution. I mean, these trials that we've seen have been free of the kind of widespread reactions that you often see with flu vaccines. And I think they will see a generation of vaccines that are going to be far, far safer and far more effective.

GROSS: Lawrence Wright, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. Thank you for your research.

WRIGHT: It's always a pleasure to talk to you, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for the New Yorker. We recorded our interview yesterday morning. His new article is titled "The Plague Year." His novel about a pandemic is called "The End Of October."


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent and a practicing neurosurgeon, about how to improve your brain's functioning and resilience, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.