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ABC News Readies ‘American Catastrophe,’ A Look At How America Missed Chances to Fight Coronavirus

ABC's Jonathan Karl at the White
Martin H. Simon/ABC News

In his role as ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent, Jonathan Karl has helped tell the story of the Trump administration’s oversight of the United States. Now he and the news outlet are gearing up to tell the story behind the story.

ABC News will on Tuesday, July 28, at 9 p.m. unveil a “20/20” report that is three months in the making. “American Catastrophe: How Did We Get Here?” will give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at how the United States missed opportunities, warning signs and chances to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, and interviews past and current U.S. officials in an attempt to figure out how the nation will proceed.

“This is the beginning of our reporting on the understanding of how we got here,” says Karl, in an interview Wednesday. “It’s a big step, but it’s a first step.”

ABC News’ production is the latest in an ongoing series and specials the nation’s TV-news outlets have created in response to what may well be the biggest news story in recent memory. CNN has on Thursday nights run an ongoing “town hall” related to disseminating information about the pandemic, while NBC News has launched a “Kids’ Edition” of its “NBC Nightly News” to offer younger viewers stories about current events. Fox News Channel has convened “town hall” programs in early afternoons and weekend primetime. ABC News has made big programming swings in recent months, swapping out an early-afternoon edition of “Good Morning America” for a harder-news hour focused on the pandemic, and moving its late-night newsmagazine “Nightline” to an earlier slot in the late evening.

The Walt Disney unit’s investigative team led the new effort, and Karl is joined during the one-hour special by colleagues including Linsey Davis, Tom Llamas, Rebecca Jarvis, Pierre Thomas, Cecila Vega, Gio Benitez and Josh Margolin. “It’s a big challenge, during the pandemic, trying to do some of the stuff we need to do, but there were a lot of people we were able to talk to,” Karl says. “We talked to all the key players — current officials, former officials and officials in two previous administrations.”

Indeed, one part of the special report examines how President George W. Bush, alarmed by a book he read on the global flu pandemic of 1918 and in the midst of grappling with the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, directed his team to ready the nation for a possible pandemic in 2005 – and why the nation was still overwhelmed when the coronavirus turned up on U.S. shores. “You just see how the ball was dropped” over time, says Karl, as various administrations steeled the nation for a fight against other contagions, then let their guard down when they weren’t as destructive as had been expected.

ABC News will tell viewers about a group of former government officials and doctors known as “The Wolverines” who maintained a “Red Dawn” email chain that warned the Trump administration about the havoc to come while the sickness was still in China. Interviews include Dr. James Lawler, the former top biosecurity official at the National Security Council and Dr. Dan Hanfling, an expert in urban rescue and emergency medicine who worked on the 9/11 and anthrax attacks. ABC News Contributor Tom Bossert, the former United States Homeland Security Advisor who headed up a pandemic response team the White House disbanded shortly before the outbreak, also talks for the report.

Current U.S. officials also take part. Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, are also interviewed, along with other experts.

“American Catastrophe: How Did We Get Here?” is produced by the ABC News Investigative Unit and ABC Longform Unit. Jeanmarie Condon and Chris Vlasto serve as senior executive producers,.Melia Patria and Cindy Galli are executive producers, and Margolin is  senior editorial producer.

Karl expects more in-depth reportage on the subject in the future. “There will be more projects, more investigations,” he says. “100%.”