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US was unprepared for pandemic, officials tell inquiry

Dr Anthony Fauci wears a face mask as he waits to testify in Washington.

Dr Anthony Fauci wears a face mask as he waits to testify in Washington.Credit:AP

Across the Capitol in the House, Dr Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director, and Robert Redfield, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention chief, were being questioned about President Donald Trump’s statements about cutting back on testing even as the virus continues to spread.

Fauci told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that there were no instructions to slow down testing as Trump declared at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while also noting the country was still in the grip of the pandemic’s first wave and experiencing a”disturbing surge” of infections in states that were among the first to reopen their economies.

“That’s something I’m really quite concerned about,” Fauci said. “A couple of days ago, there were 30,000 new infections. That’s very disturbing to me.”

The hearing came on the same day that Arizona reported record-high new coronavirus cases, and both Texas and Arizona reported record hospitalisations. At least 119,000 deaths and 2.3 million infections have been reported in the US.

Trump himself was in Arizona for a campaign rally in Phoenix, earlier visiting a newly built section of the border wall along the frontier with Mexico to commemorate the 200th mile of the wall.

“I know for sure none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing,” Fauci said. “That just is a fact. In fact, we will be doing more testing.”

Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said he expected the country would conduct 40 million to 50 million tests a month by autumn.

White House officials have insisted Trump was speaking in jest about the reduced testing. Yet on Tuesday, Trump undercut that defence, telling reporters, “I don’t kid”.

Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and other White House officials have dismissed the recent increase in cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, insisting the increase is largely due to boosts in testing.

Trump at the Mexico-US border wall on Tuesday.

Trump at the Mexico-US border wall on Tuesday.Credit:AP

There is a broad consensus among public health experts that the outbreaks are occurring as states reopen and people congregate in confined spaces without observing social distancing measures or wearing masks.

Fauci implored the public – especially younger people – to wear masks when out. More young people have been contributing to the increase in cases in recent weeks, he said.

Fauci told legislators he was “cautiously optimistic” that a vaccine would be available by the end of the year, or in early 2021, based on early clinical data.

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Fauci and Redfield told the committee they were not directly consulted about the decision to withdraw funding from the World Health Organisation.

Last month, Trump said the US would be “terminating our relationship” with the WHO, arguing it was effectively controlled by Beijing. He said the US’s more than $US400 million ($576 million) annual contribution would be diverted to other health groups.

Asked whether he had any concerns about these plans, Fauci replied, “Yes, I do.”

He added: “Despite any policy issues that come from higher up in the White House, we at the operational level continue to interact with the WHO in a very meaningful way … literally on a day-by-day basis.”

Fauci said he had never personally directed Trump to wear a face mask. The President is notoriously resistant to wearing one in public despite federal guidelines recommending it to help slow the virus’ spread.

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Redfield refused to answer directly when asked how often he interacted with Trump about the coronavirus. The issue has come to the fore recently as Trump appears to be spending less time seeking the advice of the administration’s health experts. Fauci said in a radio interview last week that he hadn’t spoken directly with Trump in two weeks.

Trump is set to come under fire in a separate committee on Wednesday, when career prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky testifies that the federal office that led the prosecution of Trump’s friend Roger Stone received “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice” to ease its sentencing recommendation.

Zelinsky, who withdrew from the Stone case, will testify before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee about political pressures that his office faced.

Meanwhile, Twitter on Tuesday labelled yet another of the President’s tweets with a warning, saying it violated its policy on abusive behaviour. The tweet threatened “serious force” against protesters in Washington.

Bloomberg, The Washington Post, staff writers

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