The White House coronavirus task force had its biggest fight yeton Saturday, pitting economic adviser Peter Navarro against infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci. At issue: How enthusiastically should the White House tout the prospects of an antimalarial drug to fight COVID-19?
Behind the scenes: This drama erupted into an epic Situation Room showdown. Trump’s coronavirus task force gathered in the White House Situation Room on Saturday at about 1:30pm, according to four sources familiar with the conversation. Vice President Mike Pence sat at the head of the table.
Numerous government officials were at the table, including Fauci, coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, Jared Kushner, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, and Commissioner of Food and Drugs Stephen Hahn.
Behind them sat staff, including Peter Navarro, tapped by Trump to compel private companies to meet the government’s coronavirus needs under the Defense Production Act.
Toward the end of the meeting, Hahn began a discussion of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which Trump believes could be a “game-changer” against the coronavirus.
Hahn gave an update about the drug and what he was seeing in different trials and real-world results.
Then Navarro got up. He brought over a stack of folders and dropped them on the table. People started passing them around.
“And the first words out of his mouth are that the studies that he’s seen, I believe they’re mostly overseas, show ‘clear therapeutic efficacy,'” said a source familiar with the conversation. “Those are the exact words out of his mouth.”
Navarro’s comments set off a heated exchange about how the Trump administration and the president ought to talk about the malaria drug, which Fauci and other public health officials stress is unproven to combat COVID-19.
Fauci pushed back against Navarro, saying that there was only anecdotal evidence that hydroxychloroquine works against the coronavirus.
Researchers have said studies out of France and China are inadequate because they did not include control groups.
Fauci and others have said much more data is needed to prove that hydroxychloroquine is effective against the coronavirus.
As part of his role, Navarro has been trying to source hydroxychloroquine from around the world. He’s also been trying to ensure that there are enough domestic production capabilities inside the U.S.
Fauci’s mention of anecdotal evidence “just set Peter off,” said one of the sources. Navarro pointed to the pile of folders on the desk, which included printouts of studies on hydroxychloroquine from around the world.
Navarro said to Fauci, “That’s science, not anecdote,” said another of the sources.
Navarro started raising his voice, and at one point accused Fauci of objecting to Trump’s travel restrictions, saying, “You were the one who early on objected to the travel restrictions with China,” saying that travel restrictions don’t work. (Navarro was one of the earliest to push the China travel ban.)
Fauci looked confused, according to a source in the room. After Trump imposed the travel restrictions, Fauci has publicly praised the president’s restriction on travel from China.
Pence was trying to moderate the heated discussion. “It was pretty clear that everyone was just trying to get Peter to sit down and stop being so confrontational,” said one of the sources.
Eventually, Kushner turned to Navarro and said, “Peter, take yes for an answer,” because most everyone agreed, by that time, it was important to surge the supply of the drug to hot zones.
The principals agreed that the administration’s public stance should be that the decision to use the drug is between doctors and patients.
Trump ended up announcing at his press conference that he had 29 million doses of hydroxychloroquine in the Strategic National Stockpile.
Between the lines: “There has never been a confrontation in the task force meetings like the one yesterday,” said a source familiar with the argument. “People speak up and there’s robust debate, but there’s never been a confrontation. Yesterday was the first confrontation.”
In response to a request for comment on Axios’ reporting, Katie Miller, a spokesperson for the vice president, said: “We don’t comment on meetings in the Situation Room.”
The bottom line: The way to discuss the drug’s potential has become a fraught issue within the Trump administration.
Most members of the task force support a cautious approach to discussing the drug until it’s proven.
Navarro, on the other hand, is convinced based on his reading that the drug works against the coronavirus and speaks about it enthusiastically.
Some of Trump’s favorite TV hosts, including Fox’s Sean Hannity, and friends including Rudy Giuliani, have also been touting the malaria drug for the coronavirus. Trump has made no secret who he sides with.
“What do you have to lose? Take it,” the president said in a White House briefing on Saturday. “I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it’s their doctor’s choice or the doctors in the hospital. But hydroxychloroquine. Try it, if you’d like.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a sweeping suspension of its enforcement of environmental laws Thursday, telling companies they would not need to meet environmental standards during the coronavirus outbreak.
The temporary policy, for which the EPA has set no end date, would allow any number of industries to skirt environmental laws, with the agency saying it will not “seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations.”
Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration, called it a moratorium on enforcing the nation’s environmental laws and an abdication of the agency’s duty.
“This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future. It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ’caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was,” she wrote in a statement to The Hill.
The EPA has been under pressure from a number of industries, including the oil industry, to suspend enforcement of a number of environmental regulations due to the pandemic.
“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.
In a 10-page letter to the EPA earlier this week, the American Petroleum Institute (API) asked for a suspension of rules that require repairing leaky equipment as well as monitoring to make sure pollution doesn’t seep into nearby water.
Other industries had also asked to ignite the “force majeure” clauses of any legal settlements they had signed with the EPA, allowing for an extension on deadlines to meet various environmental goals in the face of unforeseen circumstances.
But Giles and others say the memo signed Thursday goes beyond that request, giving industries board authority to pollute with little oversight from the agency.
“Incredibly, the EPA statement does not even reserve EPA’s right to act in the event of an imminent threat to public health,” Giles said.
“Instead, EPA says it will defer to states, and ‘work with the facility’ to minimize or prevent the threat. EPA should never relinquish its right and its obligation to act immediately and decisively when there is threat to public health, no matter what the reason is. I am not aware of any instance when EPA ever relinquished this fundamental authority as it does in this memo.”
The memo says companies should try to minimize “the effects and duration of any noncompliance” with environmental laws and should also keep records of their own noncompliance, along with identifying how the coronavirus was a factor.The EPA on Friday pushed back against characterization of the memo as a waiver of environmental rules. “During this extraordinary time, EPA believes that it is more important for facilities to ensure that their pollution control equipment remains up and running and the facilities are operating safely, than to carry out routine sampling and reporting,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Woods told The Hill by email. “If a facility has exceedances of limits on pollution the policy does not offer any no action assurance. We retain all our authorities and will exercise them appropriately. It is a temporary policy and will be terminated when this crisis is past.”
Critics say it’s not unreasonable to refrain from environmental enforcement on a case-by-case basis when companies are unable to comply with the letter of the law, but many were alarmed by the breadth of Thursdays memo.
“It is not clear why refineries, chemical plants, and other facilities that continue to operate and keep their employees on the production line will no longer have the staff or time they need to comply with environmental laws,” Eric Schaeffer, a former director of civil enforcement at the EPA who is now with the Environmental Integrity Project, wrote in a letter signed by a number of environmental groups in anticipation of the memo.
The letter writers also criticized the requests from the API, arguing nearby communities would face prolonged exposure to a number of air and water pollutants that might be expelled through oil production — something they say would have “a very specific impact on public health and safety.”
The diminished compliance requirements for industry comes at a time when the EPA has refused to budge on deadlines for comments as they proceed with a number of deregulatory actions.
Environmental and public health groups had argued that those with science and health backgrounds who would normally weigh in on such regulations have been pulled into the coronavirus fight, leaving them unable to divert their attention.
“The Environmental Protection Agency has not shown the same concern for the impact the coronavirus has had on the ability of community and public interest groups to respond to various proposals to weaken environmental standards,” Schaeffer wrote in the letter.
But the EPA has argued exceptions were not needed.
“We’re open and continuing our regulatory work business as usual,” an EPA spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “As regulations.gov is fully functioning, there is no barrier to the public providing comment during the established periods.”
President Donald Trump misstated the facts Thursday when he asserted that the Food and Drug Administration had just approved a decades-old malaria drug to treat patients infected by the coronavirus. After his FDA chief clarified that the drug still needs testing, Trump also overstated the drug’s potential upside in helping contain the outbreak.
A look at his claims at a news briefing:
TRUMP: “And we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately, and that’s where the FDA has been so great. They — they’ve gone through the approval process. It’s been approved.”
THE FACTS: The drug, known chemically as chloroquine, has been available for decades to treat the mosquito-borne illness malaria. Technically, doctors can already prescribe the drug to patients with COVID-19, a practice known as off-label prescribing. But Trump falsely suggested to reporters that the FDA had just cleared the drug specifically for the viral pandemic spreading in communities across the U.S. That would mean that the drug had met the FDA’s standards for safety and effectiveness.
Minutes later, FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn emphasized that the drug still needs testing to determine if it can help patients. He said chloroquine would have to be tested in “a large pragmatic clinical trial to actually gather that information.”
Drug trials typically require hundreds or thousands of patients and, even when accelerated, take weeks or months to complete. In his remarks, Hahn reflected on his background as a cancer doctor and warned against giving patients “false hope” before drugs are fully vetted.
While chloroquine has shown promise in preliminary laboratory studies, some experts are skeptical it will prove effective in human testing.
“I think it could be a game changer, and maybe not,” Trump said, discussing the drug.
But the FDA reiterated in a statement Thursday that there are “no FDA-approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure or prevent COVID-19.”
TRUMP: “If chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine works, or any of the other things that they’re looking at that are not quite as far out … your numbers are going to come down very rapidly.”
THE FACTS: The drugs he is referring to are for treatment in patients already infected. That doesn’t prevent spread of the virus. One study is testing chloroquine to try to protect health care workers at highest risk of infection, because a vaccine is likely a year or more away.
The Trump administration attempted to persuade a German firm developing a possible vaccine for coronavirus to move its research work to the United States, German officials said, raising fears in Berlin that President Trump was trying to assure that any inoculation would be available first, and perhaps exclusively, in the United States.
The offer arose from a March 2 meeting at the White House that included the chief executive of the German firm CureVac, Daniel Menichella. President Trump briefly attended the meeting and Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force, was also there.
“We are very confident that we will be able to develop a potent vaccine candidate within a few months,” Mr. Menichella said in a statement on the day of the meeting.
The announcement gave no reason for his sudden departure and said one of the firm’s founders, Ingmar Hoerr, would succeed him. It thanked Mr. Menichella for a variety of accomplishments, including “the recent start of our coronavirus vaccine program.”
On Sunday, the company issued a statement in Germany describing its vaccine work. “CureVac refrains from commenting on current media speculations and clearly rejects claims about the sale of the company or its technology,” it said.
White House officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But two senior American officials said that some of the German news accounts first reporting the story were overblown, particularly with regard to any effort by the United States to secure exclusive access to a vaccine.
The Trump administration has spoken with more than 25 companies that say they can help with a vaccine, one of the American officials said, and is open to speaking with others. Any solution, he said, would be shared with the world.
Nevertheless, Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a famously testy relationship with Mr. Trump, will lead a crisis meeting with ministers on Monday that will include discussion of a German defense strategy for the firm.
The coronavirus is no longer merely a health crisis, but “a question of national security,” Mr. Seehofer said Sunday. It is up to the government, he said, to ensure not only security of its borders and its food supply, but also “our medical products and our medicines.”
Asked by a reporter to confirm that the U.S. administration had tried to take over a German company researching vaccines, Mr. Seehofer responded that he had heard about the effort “from several members of the government and it will be discussed tomorrow in the crisis team.”
Another official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the company was offered a “large sum” of money.
The privately held biotechnology firm has its headquarters in the southwestern city of Tübingen, Germany. It also has an office in Boston, where many of the nation’s leading biotech firms have operations around the Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology campuses.
According to the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, which first reported the story on Sunday, Mr. Trump offered CureVac roughly $1 billion in exchange for exclusive access to the vaccine. The newspaper quoted an unnamed German government source who said Mr. Trump wanted the resulting vaccine “only for the United States.”
But another German official, reached by The New York Times, said it was unclear whether the administration simply wanted the research work, and for any resulting production to be on American soil.
Mr. Menichella was one of several industry executives invited by the White House to meet Mr. Pence, members of the coronavirus task force and pharmaceutical executives and discuss strategies to quickly develop a vaccine, the company said on its website.
CureVac started research on a number of different vaccines and is now picking the two best prospects for clinical trials, the firm’s website indicates. The company hopes that by June or July it will have an experimental vaccine that could go into trials. Many other companies are also working on vaccines.
The Trump administration has been unusually aggressive in attempting to get American control of companies that deal in technology Mr. Trump views as central to American security.
In February, Attorney General William P. Barr suggested in a speech that the United States should find a way to take over two European telecommunications makers, Ericsson and Nokia, which are the main competitors of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that is wiring up nations around the world for 5G, or fifth generation, networks.
Mr. Pence later played down that suggestion. But the idea that the Trump administration was seeking to take control of a major European technological asset sent unsettling ripples across Europe.
And the move to secure the intellectual property of CureVac, whether for exclusive or general use, is bound to inflame that debate.
Die Welt reported that the German government was making counterbids to the company to persuade it to stay. German lawmakers began to issue statements on Sunday.
“The exclusive sale of a possible vaccine to the USA must be prevented by all means,” Karl Lauterbach, a German lawmaker who is also a professor of epidemiology, said on Twitter. “Capitalism has limits.”
Adding to the dismay in Germany was the fact that CureVac works closely with a taxpayer-funded government research organization, the Paul Ehrlich Institute for vaccines and biomedicines.
Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister, praised the company for not being tempted by any American offer. “It was a great decision,” he said in a television talk show on Sunday night. “Germany is not for sale.”
Mr. Altmaier said the government would “make sure that the necessary help is available” to the company in developing the vaccine. And he warned that if any hostile offer was attempted, Germany would step in.
“When it’s about important infrastructure and national and European interest,” he said, “we will also act if we have to.”
CureVac’s main investor ruled out giving exclusive access to a future vaccine to one country.
“We want to develop a vaccine for the whole world, and not for individual states,” Christof Hettich, chief executive of Dievini Hopp Biotech Holding, told the newspaper Mannheimer Morgen.
German officials sounded unsure about the reassurances that the United States would share a vaccine if it were developed.
A spokesman for the German health ministry said that German government officials were in regular contact with CureVac, confirming a quote in the original Die Welt article.
“The federal government is very interested in vaccines and antiviral agents against the novel coronavirus being developed in Germany and Europe,” the spokesman was quoted as saying in the original article. “In this regard the government is in an intensive exchange with the company CureVac.”
President Donald Trump snapped at a reporter’s “nasty question” about his administration decimating the White House pandemic department in 2018.
PBS News reporter Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump on Friday during a coronavirus press conference about his claim he takes no responsibility for problems with the response to the pandemic.
“My first question is you said that you don’t take responsibility but you did disband the White House pandemic office and the officials that were working in that office left this administration abruptly. So what responsibility do you take to that?” asked the PBS NewsHour reporter. “The officials that worked in that office said that the White House lost valuable time because that office was disbanded. What do you make of that?”
“Well, I just think it’s a nasty question because what we’ve done, and Tony [Fauci] had said numerous times that we saved thousands of lives because of the quick closing,” President Trump responded. “And when you say me, I didn’t do it. We have a group of people… I could have perhaps ask Tony about that because I don’t know anything about it. I mean you say we did that, I don’t know anything about it. It’s the administration, perhaps, they do that. You know people let people go.”
“You used to be with a different newspaper than you are now, you know things like that happen,” he continued, before adding, “We are doing a great job. Let me tell you, these professionals behind me and these great incredible doctors and business people, the best in the world, and I can say that whether it’s retailers or labs or anything you want to say.”
“These are the best in the world,” President Trump concluded. “We are doing a great job.”
President Donald Trump referred to the novel coronavirus as a “foreign virus” in his Oval Office address on Wednesday night.
The characterization of the global pandemic as a foreign virus aligns with how some Trump allies have described the coronavirus in recent days, which critics have called xenophobic.
“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” the President said.
“I am confident that by counting and continuing to take these tough measures we will significantly reduce the threat to our citizens and we will ultimately and expeditiously defeat this virus.”
The rare Oval Office address to the nation by Trump came as his administration has faced harsh criticism for his response to the pandemic. The President said he was “marshaling the full power of the federal government” to confront the growing public health crisis, including a monthlong halt in travel from Europe to the United States.
The address came the same day the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic, with more than 1,200 cases in the US.
The outbreak has not just sparked fear and anxiety in countries like the US and the UK — it has also seen a rise in xenophobic and racist assaults against people of East Asian, and particularly Chinese, descent. And panic over the virus continues to pummel the Chinese business sector in cities like New York, where fear of the disease has driven people away from east Asian neighborhoods.
The President’s reference to the virus as “foreign” echoes a tweet he shared earlier this week promoting a US southern-border wall as a way to protect Americans from the “China Virus.”
Trump, adding his own comment to the tweet, said, “Going up fast. We need the Wall more than ever!” The post was met with fierce pushback from critics, including Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden, who tweeted, “A wall won’t stop a virus. Racism won’t stop a virus.
Donald Trump referred to the novel coronavirus as a “foreign virus” in his Oval Office address on Wednesday night, echoing Fox News and Republicans who have sought to frame the Chinese people as “bat eaters” from an “uncivilized world.”
The White House had to issue a correction after Trump was unable to read directly from a teleprompter and announced he is banning goods trade from Europe although he is not banning goods trade from Europe.
“And these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things as we get approval,” Trump said. “Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.”
The White House quickly noted that the restrictions were focused on people, not boxes, and Trump later appeared to clarify his remarks in a tweet.
The White House has ordered federal health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified, an unusual step that has restricted information and hampered the U.S. government’s response to the contagion, according to four Trump administration officials.
The officials said that dozens of classified discussions about such topics as the scope of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions have been held since mid-January in a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), a key player in the fight against the coronavirus.
Staffers without security clearances, including government experts, were excluded from the interagency meetings, which included video conference calls, the sources said.
“We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go,” one official said. “These should not be classified meetings. It was unnecessary.”
The sources said the National Security Council (NSC), which advises the president on security issues, ordered the classification.”This came directly from the White House,” one official said.
The White House insistence on secrecy at the nation’s premier public health organization, which has not been previously disclosed, has put a lid on certain information – and potentially delayed the response to the crisis. COVID19, the disease caused by the virus, has killed about 30 people in the United States and infected more than 1,000 people.
HHS oversees a broad range of health agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which among other things is responsible for tracking cases and providing guidance nationally on the outbreaks.
The administration officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said they could not describe the interactions in the meeting room because they were classified.
An NSC spokesman did not respond to questions about the meetings at HHS. But he defended the administration’s transparency across federal agencies and noted that meetings of the administration’s task force on the coronavirus all are unclassified. It was not immediately clear which meetings he was referring to.
“From day one of the response to the coronavirus, NSC has insisted on the principle of radical transparency,” said the spokesman, John Ullyot. He added that the administration “has cut red tape and set the global standard in protecting the American people under President Trump’s leadership.”
A spokeswoman for the HHS, Katherine McKeogh, issued a statement that did not address questions about classified meetings. Using language that echoed the NSC’s, the department said it that it agreed task-force meetings should be unclassified.
Critics have hammered the Trump administration for what they see as a delayed response to coronavirus outbreaks and a lack of transparency, including sidelining experts and providing misleading or incomplete information to the public. State and local officials also have complained of being kept in the dark about essential federal response information.
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, the administration’s point person on coronavirus, vowed on March 3 to offer “real-time information in a steady pace and be fully transparent.” The vice president, appointed by President Donald Trump in late February, is holding regular news briefings and also has pledged to rely on expert guidance.
The meetings at HHS were held in a secure area called a “Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility,” or SCIF, according to the administration officials.
SCIFs are usually reserved for intelligence and military operations. Ordinary cell phones and computers can’t be brought into the chambers. HHS has SCIFs because theoretically it would play a major role in biowarfare or chemical attacks.
A high-level former official who helped address public health outbreaks in the George W. Bush administration said “it’s not normal to classify discussions about a response to a public health crisis.”
Attendees at the meetings included HHS Secretary Alex Azar and his chief of staff Brian Harrison, the officials said. Azar and Harrison resisted the classification of the meetings, the sources said.
HHS did not make Azar or Harrison available for comment.
One of the administration officials told Reuters that when complex issues about a quarantine came up, a high-ranking HHS lawyer with expertise on the issue was not admitted because he did not have the proper security clearance. His input was delayed and offered at an unclassified meeting, the official said.
A fifth source familiar with the meetings said HHS staffers often weren’t informed about coronavirus developments because they didn’t have adequate clearance. He said he was told that the matters were classified “because it had to do with China.”
The coronavirus epidemic originated in China and the administration’s main focus to prevent spread early on was to restrict travel by non-U.S. citizens coming from China and to authorize the quarantine of people entering the United States who may have been exposed to the virus.
One of the administration officials suggested the security clearances for meetings at HHS were imposed not to protect national security but to keep the information within a tight circle, to prevent leaks.
“It seemed to be a tool for the White House – for the NSC – to keep participation in these meetings low,” the official said.
President Donald Trump visited the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Friday amid his administration’s push to control the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus first observed in China. But in a press conference during that visit, Trump did little to help Americans understand the government’s response to the virus, instead spreading misinformation while using the public health crisis for self-aggrandizement.
The president spent much of the press conference working to convince the public his administration has the coronavirus under control, something that does not appear to be the case.
For instance, while it is unclear how many people have been infected by the virus due to a delay in testing, it has become increasingly clear in recent days that there are Americans infected with the virus across the country. The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States has more than doubled in the past week, and as CNN’s Ryan Struyk reported, at least seven states — Minnesota, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Kentucky, Nebraska, Hawaii, and Utah — reported their first Covid-19 cases following Trump’s CDC visit.
Yet during the press conference, Trump dismissed any criticism against the government’s handling of the virus, stressing in particular the availability of Covid-19 tests.
“As of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test [can have one], that’s the important thing, and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect,” Trump said, seemingly referring to the White House transcript of his call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in which he requests an investigation into his political rivals.
That call was, of course, not perfect, and helped lead to the president’s impeachment — and the tests have not been perfect either.
There have been three main problems with the US government’s coronavirus tests: the first batch, distributed in February, is believed to have had a faulty reagent leading to inconclusive results; once that issue was corrected, there was not enough CDC capacity to test the kits that had been sent out (leading the center to open up testing to state-level facilities), and there aren’t currently enough tests to go around.
Several states have been pushing the CDC for more Covid-19 test kits, and have criticized the government for its slow response in making more tests available. New York, where there are more than 70 confirmed cases, cannot meet the demand for testing because it doesn’t have enough tests, according to Raul Perea-Henze, the New York City deputy mayor for health and human services.
“With multiple positive cases, NYC needs maximum testing capacity to enable successful implementation of the public health strategies that best protect New Yorkers,” Perea-Henze wrote in a letter Friday, requesting more testing kits. “The slow federal action on this matter has impeded our ability to beat back this epidemic.”
California simultaneously does not have enough kits to test all those at risk of having been infected, and does not have the lab capacity to process all of the tests it has already run. Lab technicians have been working 18-hour shifts in order to try to work through a testing backlog, but have been unable to do so. In Los Angeles County, commercial laboratories will begin processing tests on Monday, which is expected to help alleviate this issue.
But not all states have the resources California and New York do — while they were able to send tests to state-run labs after the CDC began allowing them to do so, some states, including Maine, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, do not currently have the capacity for in-state testing.
The government has tried to respond to mounting criticism about the shortage of testing kits. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence promised to increase supply, saying 1.5 million tests would be made available. So far, however, the actual number of tests being administered fails to live up to that promise — as of Friday, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said the CDC had distributed enough tests for 75,000 people, and partnered with a private firm to distribute material for 700,000 additional tests.
Trump’s CDC presser confirms everything people were worried about if Covid-19 hit the US
Even before the recent uptick in US-based Covid-19 cases, critics of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response argued the administration was disorganized and ill-equipped to combat Covid-19. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias has written, the president was slow to put someone in charge of the coronavirus response efforts — and when he finally did, he selected Vice President Mike Pence, someone who failed in his responses to public health crises while serving as governor of Indiana, according to experts. And there were also concerns Trump’s efforts to cut CDC funding — and the size of the administration’s initial coronavirus budget — might have limited the government’s ability to fight the virus effectively.
But experts have argued the biggest issue with the administration’s coronavirus response so far is, as former director of the USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance Jeremy Konyndyk told Vox’s Alex Ward, Trump has “made it primarily about himself.”
And this concern was on display at the CDC press conference when Trump took time to talk at length about his own intelligence, in part by referencing a “great, super genius” uncle who taught at MIT.
“I like this stuff. I really get it,” Trump said. “People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors say, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.”
Trump’s public response, however, is a reminder of how he has recently put his public health knowledge into question. During a White House meeting on Monday with pharmaceutical executives and public health officials, Trump displayed his ignorance by pushing for a vaccine to be developed in a few months (something he has promised the public will happen) — even though that’s just not how it works.
And he went on to express confusion as to why pharmaceutical companies can’t release the drugs they are currently working on immediately, as Vox’s Aaron Rupar reported:
Trump pressed the pharmaceutical leaders on why they can’t just release the coronavirus drugs their companies are working on tomorrow — in the process revealing that he doesn’t understand the concept of clinical trials.
“So you have a medicine that’s already involved with the coronaviruses, and now you have to see if it’s specifically for this. You can know that tomorrow, can’t you?” he said.
“Now the critical thing is to do clinical trials,” explained Daniel O’Day, CEO of Gilead Sciences, which has two phase-three clinical trials going for remdesivir, a potential treatment for the coronavirus. “We have two clinical trials going on in China that were started several weeks ago … we expect to get that information in April.”
Hours after learning about how vaccines work and the timeline for a potential coronavirus vaccine, Trump told supporters at a rally: “We had a great meeting today with a lot of the great companies, and they’re going to have vaccines I think relatively soon. And they’re going to have something that makes you better, and that’s going to actually take place we think even sooner.”
It isn’t clear why Trump said this, particularly after seemingly having been disabused of his misconceptions in his White House meeting, but such a statement does not support his claim at the CDC that “I understand that whole [scientific] world.”
Nor did the president’s CDC visit allay concerns about a lack of coordination between officials. If anything, it added confusion to an already tumultuous — and potentially dangerous — situation.
For example, the Trump administration has been offering a variety of answers to the question of whether the country is experiencing a shortage of test kits (it is). On Thursday, Pence said, “We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward,” according to The Hill.
Trump, however, had a completely different message as he boasted of the US’s testing capabilities in Atlanta on Friday, saying, “Anybody who needs a test gets a test. … They have the tests and the tests are beautiful.”
This left Pence with the difficult task Friday of attempting to bring his factually correct messaging in line with the president’s incorrect statements.
“I think for any American that’s symptomatic, speaking to your doctor, if you have reason to believe that you have been exposed to the coronavirus, I have every confidence that your physician would contact state health officials and have access to the state lab,” Pence said at a White House briefing. And this, unlike Trump’s statement, is closer to the truth — the CDC revised its testing guidelines on Wednesday, allowing primary physicians to conduct testing in concert with local authorities. Whether local labs have the ability to process those tests, or if those tests are even available, however, remains a matter of concern.
Although we’ve grown used to the Trump administration’s frequent inconsistency in messaging, it becomes dangerous in times like this, when transparent communication is key in helping contain a disease and keep trust in the government strong. And Trump’s tendency to self-aggrandize is not helpful in a moment that calls for collaboration and creating an apolitical environment.
Trump continues to politicize the Covid-19 outbreak
In fact, perhaps the most concerning aspect of the CDC conference was how it gave us a glimpse into Trump’s view of the coronavirus as a political rather than health-based issue.
During his remarks, Trump said he would rather have the passengers of the Grand Princess, a cruise ship docked in San Francisco with 21 confirmed cases onboard, stay on the ship than move to land — all because doing so would raise the number of total Covid-19 cases in the US.
“I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are,” Trump said. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault. And it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship either, okay? It wasn’t their fault either and they’re mostly Americans. So, I can live either way with it. I’d rather have them stay on, personally.”
Trump’s comment suggests a grim reality: that keeping the number of Covid-19 cases low is more important to him than the actual people who have the disease — all because he wants to avoid the political fallout of a growing case count.
And that wasn’t the only political moment during the conference — he also took time out to praise Fox News for its ratings, attack CNN as “fake news,” and smear Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee — who was praised by Pence for his work in fighting the spread of Covid-19 — as a “snake” who wants to “take advantage” of the administration’s kindness.
These sort of attacks undercut the seriousness of the situation — and they also draw attention toward Trump and away from the coronavirus itself. And they come at a time when the virus needs more attention than ever.
Topping a week of conflicting statements from the administration about how many tests the U.S. is now able to administer for the coronavirus, President Donald Trump on Friday told reporters at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta that “anybody who wants a test gets a test.”
U.S. health officials started the week by defending themselves to members of Congress for a shortage of tests across the country. That shortage, along with tight restrictions from the CDC on who could be tested, allowed infected people to go undetected and further spread it, say health experts.
After being rebuked for the delays, Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn on Tuesday told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that, with the aid of private sector partnerships, the government would be able to test roughly a million individuals by the end of the week.
But by Thursday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters he expects public laboratories this week to test 400,000 people. Later that day, Vice President Mike Pence said “we don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.” Pence is leading the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
A spokesperson for the CDC did not respond to requests to confirm the number of people who have been tested for the coronavirus.
Part of the administration’s hope in expediting its testing capability was partnering with the private sector to help make up for limitations created by what experts say is an underfunded public health system.
The CDC is partnering with Integrated DNA Technologies to manufacture the tests under a CDC contract. IDT is partnering with commercial labs, including LabCorp and Quest for the testing, both companies have confirmed.
“What was different was this response,” said John Auerbach, CEO of the Trust for America’s Health and former head of the CDC’s policy office. “The administration said it wasn’t just going to use public health labs as its core — it was going to say to the commercial sector, you develop these, get them out the door. … [But] that assumed they had the capacity to get these kits out the door.”
“But there are no real mechanisms for monitoring how much their capacity is — it’s kind of a wild west.”
LabCorp said Thursday its coronavirus test would be available at 6 p.m. that day. Quest said its test would be available Monday.
Meantime the number of infected people continues to grow. There are at least 245 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Pence said Friday that 21 people on the Grand Princess cruise ship off California have tested positive.
The growing count has led to mounting frustration by many in Congress over what they say are the president’s conflicting statements and a lack of transparency amid a public health crisis.
“They won’t disclose how many test kits are now available or when they will be fully deployed, but we know that they haven’t come close to the one million mark,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., in a statement to CNBC.
“Congress has done its job in providing emergency funding for the Administration to acquire, stockpile, and distribute an adequate supply of diagnostics,” Schakowsky wrote. “The question remains, is this Administration capable of doing so?”
President Trump denied in a Thursday tweet that he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that people who are feeling sick should continue to go to work amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The state of play: While Trump didn’t explicitly say that sick Americans should go to work, he did state that those with mild coronavirus cases can still recover while going about their daily lives — an assertion that contradicts public health officials’ recommendations on how to manage the illness.
“I NEVER said people that are feeling sick should go to work. This is just more Fake News and disinformation put out by the Democrats, in particular MSDNC. Comcast covers the CoronaVirus situation horribly, only looking to do harm to the incredible & successful effort being made!”
— Trump’s tweet
What Trump said on “Hannity”: “If we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work, but they get better.”
What the CDC recommends: “People who are mildly ill with COVID-19 are able to isolate at home during their illness. You should restrict activities outside your home, except for getting medical care. Do not go to work, school, or public areas. Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.”
In the same interview, Trump contradicted the World Health Organization’s assertion that the virus has a 3.4% mortality rate, calling it “a false number” because of the number of people who have had “very mild” cases and recovered without being diagnosed.
“They don’t know about the easy cases because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital. They don’t report to doctors or the hospital in many cases. So I think that number is really high. Personally, I would say that number is way under 1%,” he claimed without evidence.