It’s hard to believe, but six months ago, no one was worried about coronavirus. People were worried about another epidemic: VAPI, or vaping associated pulmonary injury. The outbreak spawned more than 2,500 cases across the United States, resulting in 64 deaths. Some in the cannabis industry say the federal government’s bungled response to VAPI was a precursor to the slow, clumsy reaction to COVID-19.
David Downs, the California Bureau Chief for Leafly, says that the federal government was “flabbergasted” at the initial reports of VAPI.
“They had no idea that tens of millions of Americans were using this electronic hardware from China and combining it with this range of active drug ingredients and secondary inactive chemicals, or that some of them had been diverted from the cosmetics and dietary supply chains and into people's lungs,” he says. “Thankfully, vaping was not at all contagious. It was a mass injury from a novel chemical exposure.”
Downs doesn’t think the agency did anything wrong. He says that it’s set up to fail.
“They're chronically underfunded. That makes them under-resourced technologically. They're also a sclerotic federal agency. And so we found them constantly mired in red tape as well as subject to political whims as opposed to health priorities.”
Cases of VAPI are virtually non-existent as of April 2020. The CDC no longer tracks reports of the illness. Downs says that’s because consumers got smart after reading reports about the additive vitamin E acetate. Months after investigations were published, the CDC finally agreed with reports from outlets like Leafly that the chemical was causing VAPI.
“In both stories, we saw an anti-international bias in science, medicine and politics. With VAPI and COVID-19, international data and voices were initially ignored.” Downs says. “The line here is what I dubbed the theater of emergency response, whether it's Katrina or wildfires or VAPI or COVID, our institutional emergency response capabilities are actually paper thin. We've defunded them and now they're very performative. They're like a show. But the good news is ... we do have the free flow of information and our own intelligence and in creativity protect ourselves and each other. And that's how we'll beat COVID-19. We can break these chains of transmission, but it's on all of us and nobody is coming to our rescue.”