Trump says he knew coronavirus was a pandemic ‘long before’ it was declared

President Trump on Tuesday said that he realized that the coronavirus outbreak was a pandemic before the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled it as such last week.

“This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” Trump said at a press conference with his coronavirus task force. “All you had to do was look at other countries.”

The president’s comments were in response to being asked if he agreed that his rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus become more reserved on Monday. Trump disagreed, saying that he always knew the outbreak was “serious.”

Trump’s answer immediately drew ire, with some pointing to a March 9 tweet of the president’s.

“The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant,” Trump tweeted at the time.

Trump also previously characterized the virus as a Democratic “hoax.”

In the past week, the Trump administration has ramped up its efforts to combat the illness that has infected more than 5,600 Americans and caused more than 90 deaths.

Late last week, Trump declared the outbreak a national health emergency, which freed up billions of dollars of potential aid. During his press conference Tuesday, Trump said that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would be meeting with Senate Republicans later in the day to talk about the third phase of an economic stimulus package aimed at helping the economic fallout that has been caused by COVID-19.

Numerous states have forced restaurants and bars to close in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus and called on Americans to work from home. The Trump administration on Monday recommended that people should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

[The Hill]

Trump health officials lie and deny that US rejected WHO diagnostic test

Trump administration health officials on Tuesday defended the pace of diagnostic testing for the novel coronavirus while pushing back on criticism that the U.S. rejected a test from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The federal government has been criticized for not at least temporarily using the WHO test until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created its own. While officials have acknowledged there are still not enough tests to meet demand, they denied refusing other tests.

“No one ever offered a test that we refused,” said Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. “This was a research-grade test that was not approved, not submitted to the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] … there was a small number that we have greatly surpassed in a very short period of time.” 

The WHO test, which adopted a German test as its model, was developed soon after Chinese researchers publicly posted the genome of the coronavirus in January. It shipped millions of tests to countries around the world, but generally only those without the capability to develop their own.

The U.S. developed its own test around the same time, but manufacturing and quality control issues soon set it well behind the WHO. 

CDC officials acknowledged that one of the three components of the initial test were faulty, but it took weeks before the agency approved a workaround. 

Public health experts and some governors have also said bureaucratic red tape around approvals slowed the development of new tests in the U.S.

Administration health officials have been loosening regulations, and on Monday night the FDA said it would allow states to take responsibility for tests developed and used by laboratories in their states, without involving the federal government. 

Deborah Birx, a State Department official coordinating the White House coronavirus task force, told reporters that the testing delays were due to the rigorous scientific process involved in approving U.S. diagnostic tests.

“We were adamant about having a high quality test based on our commercial vendors,” Birx said. “Over the next few months you’ll begin to see that other tests that were utilized around the world were not of the same quality, resulting in false positives and potentially false negatives.”

President Trump then doubled down on the defense.

“So number one, nothing was offered, number two, it was a bad test. Otherwise, it was wonderful,” Trump said.

Congressional Democrats have demanded the administration answer questions about why the WHO test was not used, but have not received a response.

During the Democratic presidential debate on Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden also called out the administration for its alleged refusal to use the WHO test. 

When asked on Tuesday about the remarks, Trump said Biden “made a mistake” by saying that the WHO offered test kits to the U.S. 

“I assume he’ll apologize,” Trump said.

[The Hill]

Trump Attacks ‘Failing’ Michigan Governor After She Hits ‘Mind-Boggling’ Coronavirus Response on MSNBC

President Donald Trump attacked Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Twitter for “failing” to combat the coronavirus in her state after she claimed to have little federal support on MSNBC.

“Failing Michigan Governor must work harder and be much more proactive,” Trump wrote. “We are pushing her to get the job done. I stand with Michigan.”

“But we need the federal government to work. We need respirators and ventilators and personal protection equipment. We need more test kits and the resources to process those test kits in a quick expedited manner,” added the Governor.

When Ruhle asked, “Can you get [the tests] without federal support?” Whitmer responded, “No, no! We need federal support. Like I said, we’re pulling out all of the stops and reaching out to our partners in the private sector and we’re going to do everything we can to supplement but it’s not to the exclusion of federal support. We need the federal government to ramp up and get this done.”

[Mediaite]

Trump Bashes Cuomo For Wanting All States Treated Equally for ‘Chinese Virus’: ‘Keep Politics Out Of It’

President Donald Trump is keeping his fight with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo going, tussling over how to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“Cuomo wants “all states to be treated the same.” But all states aren’t the same,” Trump tweeted, before using a name for the disease critics have slammed as racist. “Some are being hit hard by the Chinese Virus, some are being hit practically not at all. New York is a very big “hotspot”, West Virginia has, thus far, zero cases. Andrew, keep politics out of it….”

Trump’s tweet is a continuation of the swipes he launched on Cuomo after Monday’s teleconference between the president and state governors across the country. Cuomo has repeatedly expressed frustration that the federal government isn’t doing enough to respond to the virus, so Trump accused him of being the one who has to “do more.”

Cuomo fired back by saying “YOU have to do something! You’re supposed to be the President.” He also said he’d be “happy” to do Trump’s job if the president hands control of the Army Corps of Engineers over to him.

[Mediaite]

Trump tweets about coronavirus using term ‘Chinese Virus’

President Donald Trump drew backlash Monday night after posting a tweet using the phrase “Chinese Virus.”

After giving an address Monday afternoon in which he said the country may be headed toward recession and urged social distancing, he later tweeted his confidence in and support for various sectors while including the offensive remark.

“The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!” he wrote.

Many officials, including the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have criticized the phrase as inaccurate and potentially harmful in promoting racist associations between the virus and those from China.

The comments prompted massive backlash from many social media users, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said the tweet was misplacing blame and could put more Asian Americans in danger.

Chinese officials condemned Trump’s comments, saying his tweet smeared China.

“The U.S. should first take care of its own matters,” said Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry.

Trump has previously referred to COVID-19 as a “foreign virus,” and he has also retweeted a supporter who used the term “China Virus.” His newest reference comes days after CDC Director Robert Redfield agreed at a House hearing that it was “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” to use labels like “Chinese coronavirus,” as the virus had expanded beyond China to other parts of the world. There were roughly 3,500 confirmed cases of the illness in the U.S. as of Monday night.

Many others have condemned the practice of identifying the illness by location or ethnicity, including the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, which called on its fellow legislators to “help us prevent hysteria, ignorant attacks, and racist assaults that have been fueled by misinformation pertaining to the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19)” by sharing only confirmed and verifiable information.

While some, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., publicly condemned the racism tied to the pandemic, others, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have continued to use the offensive language, pointing to outlets that have used similar wording.

The Asian American Journalists Association released guidelines for responsible reporting in February to curb “fueling xenophobia and racism that have already emerged since the outbreak.”

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., previously told NBC News that it’s possible that several GOP legislators have continued to use the rhetoric to distract from Trump’s handling of the pandemic. She said it’s likely that officials are using China or Asian Americans as scapegoats “versus actually dealing with the problem at hand.”

Along with the virus’ spread, there has been an increase in racist incidents and discrimination targeting Asian Americans. Two Hmong guests endured harassment and were later barred from staying at first a Super 8 and then a Days Inn in Indiana. In California, an Asian teen was bullied, assaulted and sent to the emergency room over fears surrounding the pandemic.

De Blasio held a media roundtable Wednesday to condemn coronavirus-related discrimination against Asian communities in New York.

“Right now, we’ve seen particularly troubling instances of discrimination directed at Asian communities, particularly in Chinese communities,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”

CORRECTION (March 16, 2020, 11:05 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misidentified the U.S.’s primary health protection agency. It is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not the Center for Disease Control and Protection.

[NBC News]

Trump Offered ‘Large Sum’ to German Company for Exclusive Access to Coronavirus Vaccine Research

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.

But four days ago, CureVac announced that Mr. Menichella, an American, was leaving the biotechnology company, which he had headed for two years.

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.”

[The New York Times]

Trump says he’s ‘strongly considering’ a full pardon for Michael Flynn

President Donald Trump said Sunday he is “strongly considering” a full pardon of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

It was unclear what sparked Trump’s tweet Sunday, which came amid the coronavirus outbreak. Trump said “it is reported that” the FBI and the Justice Department “lost” records related to Flynn. Flynn’s attorney, Sidney Powell, has accused the FBI of tampering with the interview notes of her client.

The Justice Department and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about what Trump was referring to.

Although he pleaded guilty in late 2017, admitting he lied to the FBI about conversations during the Trump transition period with Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Flynn has sought to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging FBI misconduct. That has delayed his sentencing hearing, which had been scheduled to take place Feb. 27.

Last month, NBC News reported that the Justice Department had opened an inquiry into the FBI’s interview of Flynn while he briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser.

Attorney General William Barr asked the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, Jeffrey Jensen, to review the matter, people familiar with the inquiry said.

In October, Trump tweeted that Flynn’s prosecution was “a disgrace.” Earlier last year, he asked “why was I not told” about Flynn’s being under investigation sooner “so that I could make a change?”

Barr’s efforts to take a heavier role in matters within the Justice Department that are of personal interest to the president, including the Flynn case and the sentencing of Trump associate Roger Stone, have come under scrutiny in recent months. Barr is set to testify later this month in front of the House Judiciary Committee about his personal involvement in cases relating to allies of the president (it’s unclear whether the coronavirus outbreak will delay the hearing).

Trump’s tweet Sunday comes nearly a month after he granted clemency to a series of people. He commuted the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was serving a lengthy prison term on corruption charges. Trump also pardoned former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who was sentenced in 2010 to four years in prison after pleading guilty to felony charges, including tax fraud and lying to White House officials.

[NBC News]

Trump Caught Google Off Guard With a Bogus Coronavirus Site Announcement

President Donald Trump announced Friday that the US government’s coronavirus testing apparatus, which has lagged badly behind other developed nations, would soon get an assist from Google. The search and advertising giant will create a website, Trump said, that would help Americans figure out if they need a test for the virus, and if so where they can find one.

The only problem: There is no nationwide site like the one Trump described. And Google had no idea the president was going to mention one.

A source at Google tells WIRED that company leadership was surprised that Trump announced anything about the initiative at the press conference. What he did say was also almost entirely wrong. There will be a coronavirus testing site, not from Google but from Alphabet sister company Verily. “We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing,” Google tweeted in a statement. “Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.”

Even that, though, was not the original plan. As the Verge reported Friday afternoon, Verily had intended the site for health care workers only. After Trump unexpectedly publicized the effort, Verily decided it will let anyone visit it, but can still only provide people with testing site information in the San Francisco area. Google and Verily did not respond to requests for comment. It’s unclear whether senior Google leadership was aware of Trump’s plans, but CEO Sundar Pichai apparently made no reference to it in a company-wide memo about its coronavirus efforts Thursday, which was first reported by CNBC. In the memo, Pichai told employees that “a planning effort is underway” for Verily to “aid in the COVID-19 testing effort in the US.”

The disconnect is especially odd given how extensively Trump and other White House officials touted the website during Friday’s press conference. Google had 1,700 engineers working on it, Trump said. By Sunday, offered Vice President Mike Pence, they would be able to announce timing for the site’s availability. Recently appointed White House coronavirus coordinator Debbie Birx walked through how the site would work. “Clients and patients and people who have interest can fill out a screening questionnaire,” she said. If the answers indicate that they have symptoms for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the site will direct them to the nearest drive-through testing site. Once tested, they’ll get results within 24 to 36 hours. It sounded a bit like Google Maps: Pandemic Edition.

It’s unclear at this point the extent to which the Verily site will reflect that description. It’s part of a larger coronavirus testing package the White House announced, including partnerships with pharmacy giants CVS and Walgreens and retailers Target and Walmart. The tests themselves will be provided by biotech companies like Roche Diagnostics, which received approval for its version earlier Friday.

That the White House is finally treating testing with any kind of urgency is a welcome, if belated, push. But the apparent miscommunication—or outright misrepresentation—may bode poorly for the administration’s broader efforts. “What we have learned from past public health emergencies is the importance of clear, consistent, and accurate information that the public can use,” says Christopher Friese, professor in the University of Michigan School of Nursing. Friese’s comment was specifically about the importance of clarity in a testing information website, but also seems to apply more broadly.

Important questions remain about the Verily site itself, like how it handles data. At Friday’s press conference, Birx held up a flowchart that suggested visitors would have to log into the website to use it. “It is critically important that Google does not collect any personally identifiable information at the coronavirus website,” says Marc Rothstein, president of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center. “And there should be no covert tracking techniques, such as the retention of IP addresses linked to identifiable users. Moreover, no one should be required to use a Google account to gain access to public health information.”

Most important, today’s White House presentation created confusion at a time when the US can least afford it. People will be looking for a site that tells them where to get tested; unless they live in a handful of zip codes, it will be useless to them for the foreseeable future. That Trump said untrue things about a focal point of his plan also does not engender confidence in the rest of the measures. The US needs reliable, wide-scale testing, now. Without that, the site issue is moot.

“Will patients who are indicated for testing actually be able to get tested,” says Friese. “There are ample credible reports that is not the case presently. If patients still cannot get tested, the website is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.”

Or, as it turns out, an empty lipstick tube.

[Wired]

Trump Snaps at ‘Nasty Question’ About Disbanding White House Pandemic Office in 2018

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.”

[Mediaite]

Media

‘I don’t take responsibility at all’: Trump deflects blame for coronavirus testing fumble

President Donald Trump on Friday deflected blame for his administration’s lagging ability to test Americans for the coronavirus outbreak, insisting instead — without offering evidence — that fault lies with his predecessor, Barack Obama.

“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said defiantly, pointing to an unspecified “set of circumstances” and “rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.”

The remarks from the president came in response to questions at a Friday press conference about the lack of widespread access to testing, an aspect of his administration’s coronavirus response that has been the subject of widespread, steady criticism. Administration officials told lawmakers yesterday that the U.S. tested about 11,000 people during the first seven weeks of the outbreak — roughly as many as South Korea is testing each day.

And Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee on Thursday that “the system is not really geared to what we need right now” in and called the testing system “a failing.”

But Trump, who spent weeks downplaying coronavirus before declaring it a national emergency on Friday, argued that the health care system was not designed for an outbreak on the scale of coronavirus, “with the kind of numbers that we are talking about.”

The president kept his criticism lighter and more forward-looking at first, declaring that his administration is “leaving a very indelible print in the future in case something like this happens again.”

“That’s not the fault of anybody — and frankly the old system worked very well for smaller numbers, much smaller numbers but not for these kind of numbers,” he added.

But then Fauci stepped up to the mic to clarify his position, arguing that the CDC’s testing system, “for what it was designed for, it worked very well,” and maintaining that an “embrace” of the private sector was necessary for testing at the kind of scale needed for the fast-spreading coronavirus.

Then, Trump began pointing fingers.

“If you go back — please, if you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this. they didn’t do testing like this,” he interjected, referencing the 2009 H1N1 pandemic that sickened more than 60 million people between April 2009 and 2010. Trump asserted that the Obama administration “didn’t do testing” and that when “they started thinking about testing,” it was “far too late.”

He reiterated a claim made on Twitter earlier in the day, calling the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu outbreak “a very big failure,” though the H1N1’s fatality rate of .02 percent is much lower than the lowest fatality estimates for the coronavirus thus far.

Trump later got testy with another reporter who pressed him on whether he bore any responsibility for the surge in cases, noting that he’d disbanded the White House’s pandemic office.

Trump told the reporter, PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor — with whom he’s butted heads with in the past — that her inquiry was a “nasty question.”

After noting that his administration had quickly acted to restrict travel from China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, the president said he personally was not responsible for dissolving the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which had been part of the National Security Council until his administration disbanded it and rolled its officials into another office.

[Politico]

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