In an early-evening press conference, President Donald Trump tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak that has spread through Europe, Asia and Latin America.
The new coronavirus strain, which has infected about 81,000 people around the world and killed 3,000, has already wrought havoc on the global economy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned yesterday that the U.S. will likely not be able to escape the spread of the virus.
“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a press conference given by the Centers for Disease Control on Tuesday. “Disruption to everyday life might be severe.”
Earlier this evening, California reported its first case of community transmission, which was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control, according to The New York Times. That’s a case where an infected person was not exposed to anyone known to be infected with the virus and had not traveled to countries where the virus had spread.
Speaking alongside Pence; Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. Anthony Fauci; and principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Anne Schuchat, the President stressed that the U.S. government was “very, very ready” to respond to the disease.
Vice President Pence said that the White House would continue to work closely with state and local officials, add additional personnel and work with Congress to ensure that the necessary resources are available. “The threat to the American public remains low,” Pence said.
The White House is asking Congress for $2.5 billion to support efforts to stop the spread of the virus in the U.S. while Senate Democrats led by Chuck Schumer have put an $8.5 billion price tag on the coronavirus fight.
Secretary Azar outlined five areas where the government would look to spend money including: monitor the spread of the virus, cooperate with local governments, develop therapeutics, develop vaccines, and manufacture and purchase personal protective equipment.
Diagnosing the illness has been a particular problem for the U.S. According to multiple reports, the CDC isn’t prepared to test for a potentially rapidly expanding number of cases in the U.S.
Only 12 of the 100 public health labs in the U.S. are able to diagnose the coronavirus because of problems with a test developed by the CDC, according to a Politico report.
Better diagnostics tools are going to be one of the critical areas where startups could play a role in combating the spread of the virus.
“Where startups are going to make contributions is in detection, monitoring, epidemiological predictions, sequencing, supply chain [and] distribution logistics,” wrote James Birch, an entrepreneur and former researcher with the American College of Surgeons.
Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration chief and an investor with New Enterprise Associates, has advocated for the expansion of Emergency Use Authorizations from the organization he used to lead as a way to respond to the need for more, better diagnostic tests.
The lack of effective tests available to public health facilities calls into question exactly how prepared the government is for the potential health crisis. In fact, the White House got rid of the pandemic response group in the Administration in a cost-cutting measure in 2018.
California’s recently diagnosed new case also casts doubt on the government’s ability to effectively respond to the emerging illness. As the University of California Davis Medical Center wrote in an internal document:
“Upon admission, our team asked public health officials if this case could be COVID-19. We requested COVID-19 testing by the CDC, since neither Sacramento County nor (the California Department of Public Health) is doing testing for coronavirus at this time. Since the patient did not fit the existing CDC criteria for COVID-19, a test was not immediately administered…”
On Sunday, the CDC ordered COVID-19 testing of the patient and the patient was put on airborne precautions and strict contact precautions. The positive test results were announced on Wednesday.
Also troubling to some healthcare observers is Pence’s own track record when it comes to healthcare crises.
As governor of Indiana, Pence’s inaction led to an outbreak of HIV in one of the state’s more rural counties, according to a report in HuffPost. As drug use soared in the state during the opioid crisis, addicts in the county were also becoming infected with the virus because they were sharing needles. Pence opposed a needle-sharing program, which could have limited the spread of the virus.
Fears about how the new coronavirus would impact the economy rattled stock markets earlier this week as news of the disease’s spread to Europe were confirmed. The market’s slide and the political response in Washington played a role in the president’s decision to hold a press conference today, judging by the president’s own Twitter account.