In CAPRI’s first event of 2023 with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, Matt and Yen Pottinger discussed the successes, failures, and continuing challenges in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years ago when CAPRI’s international team assembled to conduct research on the post-pandemic world order, many people around the world believed that we had reached a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccine coverage was growing in many countries, domestic restrictions were beginning to loosen, and international trade and travel began to recover. However, the world has since learned that COVID-19 is not so easily managed. We now know that the virus can rapidly evolve, becoming more transmissible and evading the protection of vaccines. As governments attempt to balance between protecting public health and enabling normal economic and social life, CAPRI organized this event to ensure the lessons from the pandemic are applied across all areas of public policy.
Professor Syaru Shirley Lin of CAPRI began the discussion by asking what China’s rapid dismantling of COVID-19 restrictions means for the fourth year of the pandemic. Matt Pottinger, former US Deputy National Security Advisor, recognized the efforts by doctors and journalists in China to communicate with the world about the mysterious illness that would become known as COVID-19. Despite the lack of transparency from the Chinese government. Dr. Yen Pottinger, a virologist and technical laboratory advisor at Columbia University who has advised the US Centers for Disease Control and many governments’ ministries of health, observed that China had insufficiently prepared for its reopening over the last three years. “China’s COVID story is still playing out…there was little preparation for this period, unfortunately.”
In late 2022, CAPRI contributed research to Brookings’ Democracy in Asia Project on the role of democratic institutions and political culture in responding to pandemics. On that topic, Mr. Pottinger offered insight he gained while working in government. “There is a tendency in all societies to assume that political decision making is an obstacle to letting experts lead the response to a crisis. This is the wrong model.” Pointing out where policy decisions diverged from expert advice at the beginning of the pandemic, Mr. Pottinger argued that the political process lends legitimacy and flexibility to policy in the face of an unknown threat. Dr. Pottinger added that public health experts and epidemiologists could rely only on their previous knowledge to advise governments and communicate with the public. “The scientists acted on what they thought they knew at the time; as the situation changes, we have to change our advice to the public.” Even though the United States had spent billions of dollars preparing for a variety of pandemics, Dr. Pottinger noted that “for a fast-moving, respiratory virus, everything we knew didn’t work.”
Noting Taiwan’s success in controlling the spread of COVID-19 early in the pandemic, Mr. Pottinger called for Taiwan’s participation in a new coalition of countries that would lead the world in pandemic response by sharing information and standards that complement the work of the World Health Organization (WHO).
In response to Prof. Lin’s questions about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the Pottingers described the two main possibilities: zoonotic transmission from an animal to humans or an accidental lab leak. Mr. Pottinger said that it is unlikely that China will provide transparency on the definitive origin of the virus. Dr. Pottinger described that the virus could have originated in bats, subsequently being researched upon and accidentally leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. “We know it’s a lab leak or a zoonotic origin, so we should prepare for both.” As more countries realize the importance of viral research, global standards are needed to ensure that laboratories stay safe.
After the moderated panel, the Pottingers took several questions from the audience, including Professors Chang-Chuan Chan and Professor Harry Harding of CAPRI’s board of directors. Professor Chan, a former dean of the College of Public Health at National Taiwan University, asked why Taiwan’s success in controlling the pandemic during its earlier phase could not be maintained, to which Dr. Pottinger answered that each country was successful at different times, though the extreme transmissibility of the Omicron variant makes it difficult for all countries to confront the pandemic. “In that first phase, Taiwan’s reaction and the way you handled the pandemic was in fact what was best for your population,” shared Dr. Pottinger. She also addressed Professor Harding’s question about lessons learned from the pandemic, referencing CAPRI’s 2021 research on inequitable vaccine distribution and a lack of diversity in manufacturing locations drove the spread of the pandemic, with some countries unable to get effective COVID vaccines in a timely manner.
Members of the audience also asked questions. A journalist asked Mr. Pottinger if his call for a new global health body, which would exclude authoritarian regimes, would create a divide in global decision making that could leave out the developing world. Mr. Pottinger clarified that this body would support all countries and have the necessary tools and expertise to respond to pandemics anywhere in the world. A student asked Dr. Pottinger how governments should decide which factors to prioritize during a public health crisis, to which she shared that the priority should be what gives the public the best information, presented clearly and concisely. She also stressed the importance of cooperation between national and local governments, alongside community leaders, to ensure that messaging is effective.
Wednesday, January 11, 2023
The Mandarin Ballroom II, Mandarin Oriental, Taipei
As COVID-19 surges in China and elsewhere, how can more transparency and better coordination help the world prevent the next pandemic? In advising the US government in national security and disease surveillance, Matt and Yen Pottinger were among the first to recognize the importance of effective scientific and policy leadership responding to the pandemic. In this public forum moderated by Syaru Shirley Lin of the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation and the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, the Pottingers reflect on successes, failures, and lessons in responding to COVID-19 and ongoing efforts to understand the pandemic’s origins to build resilient healthcare systems and improve governance for future crises.
Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution
Former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor
Matthew Pottinger is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Chairman of the China Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Matt served at the White House for 4 years in senior roles on the National Security Council staff, including as Deputy National Security Advisor from 2019 to 2021. In that role, Matt coordinated the full spectrum of national security policy. Before that, he served as Senior Director for Asia, where he led the administration’s work on the Indo-Pacific region and particularly its shift on China policy. Before his White House service, Matt spent the late 1990s and early 2000s in China as a reporter for Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. He then fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine during three combat deployments between 2007 and 2010. Following active duty, Matt founded and led an Asia-focused risk consultancy and ran Asia research at an investment fund in New York.
Senior Technical Advisor for Laboratory Surveillance, ICAP at Columbia University
Former HIV Incidence Team Lead, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Dr. Yen Pottinger is an infectious disease laboratory expert and public health specialist with over 15 years of experience both domestically and internationally. She currently serves as Senior Technical Advisor for Laboratory Surveillance at ICAP, Columbia University. She focuses on implementing HIV public health programs primarily in Africa, namely point-of-care recency testing in the CDC-funded Tracking with Recency Assays to Control the Epidemic (TRACE) Project. Previously, she was Senior Laboratory Advisor for the Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (PHIA) Project. She also works on improving HIV laboratory systems and diagnostic testing, collaborating with health ministries and other global and local partners in ICAP-supported countries. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Pottinger has provided technical assistance and guidance to CDC and U.S. government entities, ministries of health, and other partners on SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic testing and safety protocols. She is also principal investigator for a CDC-funded project on antimicrobial resistance in Kenya. Over 8 years at CDC, Dr. Pottinger developed, validated, and implemented the limiting antigen avidity assay, which is now the most widely used assay globally for estimating and surveilling HIV incidence. Dr. Pottinger holds a Doctoral degree from the University of California, Davis in Pharmacology and Toxicology. She completed postdoctoral training as an ORISE fellow at CDC Atlanta.
Founder and Chair, Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation
Research Professor, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
Syaru Shirley Lin, research professor at the Miller Center and a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Tsinghua University in Beijing, and National Chengchi University in Taipei. Lin is the founder and chair of the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation (CAPRI) and a steering committee member of the Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience under the World Economic Forum. Her book, Taiwan’s China Dilemma, analyzes the impact of the evolution of Taiwanese national identity on cross-Strait economic policy. Lin is currently writing a book on the challenges facing high-income societies in Asia Pacific, including inequality, demographic decline, inadequate policy and technological innovation, and threats to public health and environmental sustainability. Her commentaries frequently appear in both English and Chinese media. Previously, she was a partner at Goldman Sachs, where she led the firm’s private equity and venture capital efforts in Asia.