President Trump on Thursday directed the Food and Drug Administration to repurpose an anti-malarial drug for use against the raging coronavirus pandemic and told states to order badly needed ventilators instead of relying on him, saying his administration is “not a shipping clerk.”
The president is scrambling to keep up with a coronavirus that has infected more than 10,750 Americans and killed about 160, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
In yet another sign of how the virus crisis has upended virtually every aspect of normal life, The State Department issued its highest level travel advisory Thursday, warning Americans against going to any country as the world races to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The Level 4: Do Not Travel warning, which has been used by the department sparingly in recent years to advise against traveling to war zones, or nations experiencing disease or financial crises, cautions U.S. citizens to avoid “all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.”
“If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe,” the department warns on its travel website.
Mr. Trump told reporters that the malaria drug — hydroxychloroquine — has been around for a long time, so “it’s not going to kill anybody,” and that is has shown promise against the coronavirus.
The FDA says states can administer the drug to coronavirus patients through a prescription.
“We’re going to be able to make the drug available almost immediately,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump said he’s excited about another drug — remdesivir — from Gilead Sciences. It’s being used in Washington state under the “compassionate use” standard, a process in which drugs that aren’t fully licensed for use can be deployed against urgent new threats.
“I think it’s going to be very exciting. I think it could be a game-changer, and maybe not,” Mr. Trump said. “Based on what I see, it could be a game-changer.”
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said clinical trials will be necessary to make sure the drugs are effective before they become widely available.
However, Dr. Hahn did express the hope that drug therapies could blunt the epidemic while the world develops a vaccine, which can take up to 18 months.
“The vaccine, by its nature, you have to have long tests,” Mr. Trump said. “You have to make sure what goes into somebody’s body is not going to do destruction, do bad things.”
Gerard Anderson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said if existing drugs prove to be effective against the coronavirus “it is possible to have production begin rather quickly, but it will take a while to manufacture in quantity.”
The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, and has spread to six continents, forcing European nations to lock down their citizenry, except for emergencies or trips to grocery stores. Countries such as Italy, Spain and Iran have been particularly hard hit, but U.S. authorities say the virus is far from its peak here.
The State Department also bumped up its warnings for U.S. citizens to “arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”
Separately, the Veterans Administration was bracing for a huge drain on the system from aging veterans exposed to the virus, and is seeking $16.6 billion in emergency funding from Congress, the Associated Press reported.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is contending with criticisms that the U.S. is falling behind in getting much-needed equipment to hospitals that might be overrun by the pandemic in the coming days or weeks.
The president hasn’t used the Defense Production Act to speed the production of things such as ventilators or personal protective equipment, despite preparing to invoke the 1950 law Wednesday. Mr. Trump said he expects states to act first, meaning he will only use federal power to direct procurement as needed later on.
“The federal government’s not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping — you know, we’re not a shipping clerk,” Mr. Trump said. “The governors are supposed to be doing it. We’ll help out, and we’ll help out wherever we can.”
But Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Trump should use the Korean War-era act immediately, saying time is being lost as hospitals complain of shortages and some governors appeal for a more coordinated, federally-led approach. Some health workers were told to use bandannas instead of masks.
“There is not a day to lose. We must put more testing, more protective equipment and more ventilators into the hands of our frontline workers immediately,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
The U.S. is trying to avoid the fate of Italy, where the death toll reached over 3,400 Thursday, surpassing that of China, where the outbreak began.
China, on the other hand, reported zero new cases of local transmission in a 24-hour period for the first time since the start of the outbreak in December.
The World Health Organization called that an “amazing achievement,” though critics say figures from the communist government in Beijing should be taken with a grain of salt.
Mr. Trump continued to blame China for allowing the virus to spread at the outset in late 2019, saying it put the U.S. and other countries at a disadvantage.
“It could have been stopped right where it came from, China,” Mr. Trump said.
However, a New York Times report on Thursday said government exercises, including one run last year, warned the U.S. was unprepared for a pandemic like the one that’s unfolding now.
Mr. Trump insists his administration was on top of things, and his 2020 campaign released a timeline of his “critical” actions since the start of the outbreak.
“The only thing we weren’t prepared for is the media,” Mr. Trump said, arguing he didn’t get credit for his early decision to restrict travelers from China coming to the U.S.
A lack of diagnostics has been a blind spot in the response, with the U.S. far behind other countries in the rate at which suspected victims are being examined. The administration says testing is ramping up, a move almost certain to bring a sharp rise in the number of confirmed infections in the country.
“You can see the dramatic increases in the number of new cases based on our ability to test additional people. This will continue over the next two to three days as we begin to have backlogs reduced,” said Deborah Birx, the U.S. coronavirus response coordinator.
Dr. Birx said many asymptomatic people are heeding official advice to leave tests to people who show signs of illness. However, the proportion of people coming back positive is around 10% to 11%.
“That means that 90% of the illnesses out there, even the severe ones, are not COVID-19,” she said.
She said about half of the U.S. cases are concentrated in 10 counties, as hot spots in Washington state, California and New York take stringent measures to restrict public movement.
“I think they actually are doing a lot. I know New York has been doing a lot,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re all working very hard to quarantine.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close their physical locations late Thursday, meaning only places like grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations and those offering home supplies can stay open.
The Democrat said the state will enforce the rules against businesses that don’t comply, starting Saturday.
The administration is pleading with Americans to stay home when possible, avoid groups of 10 or more and enjoy takeout instead of entering restaurants, many of which have closed, anyway.
Changes have impacted the White House itself. Reporters have their temperatures checked at the gate and must sit with seats in between them in the briefing room.
“With social distancing,” Mr. Trump said, “the media has been much nicer.”