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FRONTLINE: The Virus: What Went Wrong?

President Trump holds coronavirus response event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington. May 15, 2020.
Courtesy of Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
President Trump holds coronavirus response event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington. May 15, 2020.

Airs Tuesday, June 16, 2020 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, June 18 at 9:30 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

Why Was America So Unprepared to Fight the Coronavirus? A FRONTLINE Documentary Special Offers Answers

On Dec. 31, 2019, millions of people gathered around the world to celebrate the coming of a new year. They were unaware that a highly infectious virus was already rapidly spreading — and that within the next six months, it would kill more than 350,000 people worldwide, over 100,000 of them Americans.

As COVID-19 spread from China to the Middle East to Europe and its deadly toll mounted, how did governments around the world respond — and why were America’s leaders so unprepared for what was coming?

On June 16, FRONTLINE offers answers in "The Virus: What Went Wrong?," a 90-minute documentary special from award-winning journalists Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria that traces the novel coronavirus’s emergence in Wuhan, its path across the globe, and its spread in the United States.

“It wasn’t inevitable that America’s COVID-19 outbreak would become the worst in the world. Our new film shows how and why it happened,” says Smith, a veteran chronicler of both U.S. and foreign policy who has investigated the responses to disasters including 9/11 ("Truth, War & Consequences"), Hurricane Katrina ("The Storm"), the Haiti earthquake ("The Quake"), the Deepwater Horizon explosion ("The Spill"), and the financial crisis ("Money, Power and Wall Street").

Drawing on interviews with top officials, scientists and first responders in China, Iran, Italy, South Korea and the U.S., the panoramic film identifies a chain of fateful missteps — from Chinese authorities’ early silencing of dissent around the emerging virus, to the World Health Organization’s failure to more quickly sound the alarm, to Italian officials’ slow initial reaction.

Then, it unpacks the reasons for, and defining moments of, the Trump administration’s halting response despite warnings going back to January, and a string of missed opportunities to contain the virus before it was too late.

As the COVID Threat Ramped Up, Trump Resisted Sounding the Alarm

“I would equate it to something like seeing a hurricane offshore that has just taken out a couple of the Caribbean Islands and is strengthening to category five as it heads for Florida, and not bothering to tell people to get off the beach and board their windows… and only starting to do that when you see the storm start coming to shore, by which point it's, of course, far too late,” Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the Obama administration’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, tells FRONTLINE.

The film examines the consequences of the Trump administration’s reorganization of an Obama-era National Security Council-level pandemic response office, and its early emphasis on simply closing borders to combat the virus rather than implementing comprehensive preparedness, social distancing and testing strategies.

In particularly gripping detail, the film traces how the CDC’s inability to manufacture and mass-distribute a working COVID-19 test early on helped lay the foundation for all that went wrong in the U.S..

“We were left without the biggest tool in our tool box at that point,” Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, tells FRONTLINE of the pivotal month of February. “We were flying blind.”

Smith presses the head of the CDC himself, Dr. Robert Redfield, on testing and the federal response: “Now is the time to give this nation the public health infrastructure, not only that it needs, but that it deserves,” Redfield says, adding, “We have to get far better prepared for the coronavirus just for the fall and winter of 2020, 2021.”

As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold, "The Virus" is a powerful look at who is responsible for its tragic scope, and how and why our leaders failed to protect us.

For more reporting from FRONTLINE on COVID-19, listen to "Covering Coronavirus," a special podcast series from the FRONTLINE Dispatch.

The Last Call (full film) | FRONTLINE

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Tune into the broadcast or or watch at pbs.org/frontline, on YouTube at 9:30/8:30c, or with the PBS Video App beginning at 7/6c.

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Credits:


A FRONTLINE production with Rain Media, Inc. The producers and writers are Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The correspondent is Martin Smith. The co-producers are Hannes Hosp, Rachel Beth Anderson and Timothy Grucza. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.