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US FDA recalls workers from China; CDC role in WHO coronavirus mission uncertain

SNL ImageHHS Secretary Alex Azar flanked by CDC Director Robert Redfield, left, CDC's Nancy Messonnier and NIAID Director Anthony Fauci during a Jan. 28 news conference in Washington.
Source: AP Photo

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is halting all travel of its employees to China and recalling its workers from that nation in light of the ongoing outbreak of the new coronavirus, which has rapidly spread throughout that country and the world.

Most of the 20,600 infections and 427 deaths from the 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, have been in China.

Two deaths have been reported outside of China — the first in the Philippines and the second in Hong Kong.

All FDA employees in China are being evacuated from that country with other U.S. federal workers under a government authorized departure, spokeswoman Megan McSeveney told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

"All FDA travel to China is hereby canceled until further notice," McSeveney said. "Any mission critical travel will be assessed on a case-by-case basis in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services and the State Department."

She said FDA staff and investigators would continue to assess the situation in China.

"We are dedicated to continuing our public health mission of protecting U.S. consumers and patients," McSeveney said. "Safety is the highest priority of the FDA, and we will continue to work to balance the safety of our staff with the safety of the products the American public relies on."

The FDA has not received any reports from drug manufacturers about any impact to the supply chain that may result in shortages of critical medical products in the U.S., she said.

However, McSeveney emphasized "this remains an evolving situation."

"If there is a potential disruption reported, we will utilize all tools we have available, such as working with manufacturers and expediting review of alternate supply to prevent shortages," she said.

The FDA is monitoring the situation in China and has been in contact with manufacturers to remind them of their requirements to notify the agency if there is any potential supply disruption due to the coronavirus outbreak, McSeveney said.

"As in the past, if a potential shortage of a critical medical product is reported, the FDA will take steps to quickly share that information with the public," she said. "We're closely coordinating with partners across the US government as we all work to prepare, mitigate and respond to this outbreak. This is a dynamic situation."

Nearly 200 federal workers and other Americans who were extracted last week from China on a State Department-chartered flight have been under a 14-day quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in Ontario, Calif., since Jan. 29.

That 14-day quarantine, which is being overseen by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was later extended on Jan 31 to all Americans who had visited Hubei province, China, in the past two weeks — an action taken the same day the U.S. declared 2019-nCoV a public health emergency.

SNL Image
HHS Sec. Alex Azar signing the order to declare the new coronavirus a U.S. public health emergency.
Source: Department of Health and Human Services

More State Department-chartered flights from China are expected to arrive in the U.S. in the coming days, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on Feb. 3.

"Medical staff will monitor the health of these people, including temperature checks and observation for respiratory symptoms," Messonnier said. "Medical care will be readily available at the first onset of symptoms."

While people returning to the U.S. on government planes will likely be housed at military bases, Messonnier said other Americans under the 14-day quarantine may be put up at local hotels or other temporary housing.

"This was one of the contingencies we have been planning for," she said.

Messonnier said the U.S. has been "preparing as if this were the next pandemic."

WHO mission

Meanwhile, there is uncertainty about whether the U.S. will be part of an international team of disease experts the World Health Organization is leading on a mission to China, which could get underway as early as this week.

On Jan. 29, Messonnier told reporters that the CDC had been "invited" to participate in the mission.

And HHS Secretary Alex Azar tweeted the next day that "China will accept our offer of U.S. public health experts as part of the WHO mission."

Azar had noted during a Jan. 28 news conference that the HHS had made repeated offers to send CDC scientists to China. He said he was "delighted" to hear China had agreed to the WHO mission.

However, during a Feb. 2 appearance on CBS "Face the Nation," White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said the U.S. was still waiting on a response from China on the offer.

On Feb. 3, an HHS spokesperson said the agency had submitted a list of names to the WHO after the Chinese government "welcomed our participation" in the mission.

"CDC could be part" of the mission, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told S&P Global Market Intelligence. But he said the composition of the team has not yet been finalized.