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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

False Claim About CDC’s Global Anti-Pandemic Work

As the COVID-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus has spread around the world, a number of politicians, news organizations and public figures have made the false claim that the Trump administration cut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s anti-pandemic work in over 40 countries to just 10. The CDC told us that’s not true.  

The claim appears to have been based solely on outdated news reports from early 2018 that said the CDC was preparing to dramatically reduce its work helping to prevent infectious-disease epidemics. Those reports said much of that work on the Global Health Security Agenda, a pact between over 60 nations that began in 2014, had been funded by a five-year, nearly $600 million supplemental package that was dwindling. That one-time funding, which Congress originally appropriated in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, ran out at the end of September 2019.

The director of the CDC’s Center for Global Health did say at the time that, without additional funding, its Division of Global Health Protection “will have to scale its global health security portfolio to focus efforts based on existing resources,” as the Wall Street Journal first reported in January 2018. If that happened, the official said the CDC would shift its focus to just 10 “priority countries” and “plan for the completion of its country-based programs” in 39 other nations, the Journal’s story said. 

Those hypothetical cuts were avoided, however, because Congress later provided more funding for the CDC’s global health programs, the CDC told us in a statement.  

But in remarks from the Senate floor on Feb. 24, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer claimed the Trump administration made “drastic cuts to the global health division at CDC,” before saying, “In 2018, CDC was forced to reduce the number of countries it operated in from 49 to 10.”

Three days later, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut made a similar claim on Twitter — though he used slightly different figures.

“President Obama set up anti-pandemic programs in 47 vulnerable countries, as a way to protect against something just like Coronavirus breaking out across the world,” Murphy wrote. “Experts begged Trump to keep them open. He closed 37 of them.”

Murphy’s tweet appeared to catch the attention of Joy Behar, co-host of ABC’s “The View,” who made the same claim on the daytime talk show March 9. 

Murphy’s office did not respond when we asked for a source for his statement, and Schumer’s office told us Schumer relied on a New York Times article that was published the day of his floor remarks. That Times piece was not the only one from a news outlet to state that the cutbacks the CDC warned about in 2018 had actually gone into effect.

As we said, the CDC told us that’s false.

“CDC did not have to cut back its work from 49 to 10 countries,” said Maureen Bartee, CDC’s associate director for Global Health Security, in a statement to FactCheck.org. “In the FY18-FY20 annual appropriations, CDC received base appropriations for global health security from Congress. This was used to continue the essential public health capacity development in the four core areas that was started in 2014 with the one-time supplemental funds.”

Those four core areas, Bartee said, are surveillance, laboratory systems, workforce development and emergency management and response. “Focusing on potential weak links in these core areas ensures that partner countries are better prepared to respond to disease threats, wherever they might begin,” she explained.

CDC operating budget plans show that its funding for global public health protection — which includes global disease detection and emergency response and global public health capacity — increased from $58 million in fiscal year 2017 to around $108 million in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. (And that does not include any remaining supplemental funds available for use.) The increases included nearly $50 million more each year for CDC’s global health security initiatives. 

Those amounts went up again in fiscal year 2020, when the CDC was awarded $183 million for global public health protection, overall, and $125 million specifically for its global health security efforts. For fiscal year 2021, President Donald Trump has requested that CDC funding for global disease detection and other programs be increased further — to $225 million total, with $175 million going directly to global health security.

With its current funding, Bartee said, the CDC is actually working in “more than 60 countries” — not 10 — to address the threat of global infectious diseases and outbreaks.

Bartee, email to FactCheck.org, March 10: In fiscal year 2020, the U.S. government, including CDC, is working with 19 priority partner countries to build preparedness and capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats at their source. These countries are Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, and Vietnam. In addition to these 19, CDC is supporting global disease detection, emergency and humanitarian response, and other global health protection activities in Cambodia, China, Egypt, Georgia, Ghana, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Niger, Panama, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.  

Also, CDC is establishing platforms with regional offices to advance global health security and maintain a sustainable global presence. With this regional approach, CDC intends to implement a sustainable, long-term overseas operational structure, expand the reach of its technical assistance and programs, and strengthen disease outbreak response. CDC is currently establishing regional platforms in South America (Brazil), Eastern Europe/Central Asia (Georgia), Middle East/North Africa (Oman), and Southeast Asia (Vietnam). 

Beyond those countries listed here, CDC, along with other U.S. government agencies, continues to support a broad range of global health programs (e.g., HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, global immunization) that address global infectious diseases threats, as well as response to major outbreaks that require international assistance. All told, CDC is currently working in more than 60 countries.

For comparison, in 2017, the CDC said it worked with 17 “Phase 1” countries and another 14 “Phase 2” countries and CARICOM, an organization of 15 Caribbean island nations, on implementation of the Global Health Security Agenda. That’s the same number of countries the CDC said the U.S. originally committed to working with back in 2014.

The “Phase I” countries receive financial support and technical assistance from CDC staff, while the “Phase II” countries receive technical assistance only.