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FDA commissioner declines to defend Trump's latest coronavirus boasts

Colin Campbell
·Managing Editor
·4 min read
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A member of the White House coronavirus task force on Sunday said he wouldn’t “get into who’s right and who’s wrong” when asked if he agreed with two widely disputed claims President Trump made a day earlier.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., at an Independence Day celebration, Trump promised Saturday that the U.S. “will likely have a therapeutic and/or vaccine solution long before the end of the year.”

But Dr. Stephen Hahn, the FDA commissioner and a task force member, declined to back the president’s prediction during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

“I can’t predict when a vaccine will be available,” he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz.

“I just want to tell you about FDA’s role in this. Yes, we are seeing unprecedented speed for the development of a vaccine,” he continued, stressing that the FDA’s approval of a vaccine would be “based upon the data and science.”

President Donald Trump speaks during a "Salute to America" event on the South Lawn of the White House, Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Trump speaks during a July 4 "Salute to America" event at the White House. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In his Saturday speech, Trump also made a claim that Raddatz labeled “stunning”: that 99 percent of coronavirus cases “are totally harmless.”

There is widespread disagreement, even among health experts, on the “case fatality rate” of COVID-19: the percentage of infections that lead to death. It is calculated at around 4.6 percent in the U.S., but varies widely around the world, from less than 1 percent in Iceland to 14 percent in Italy and in Britain. The cumulative numbers may reflect, in part, the fact that the first wave of infections spread widely among the elderly, who are at greater risk of dying from coronavirus disease. New cases are now rising among younger adults, who are more likely to survive.

But there is growing evidence that even when it isn’t fatal, COVID-19 isn’t “totally harmless” to many patients, and can cause debilitating symptoms of uncertain duration, including fatigue, shortness of breath and organ damage.

Many people carrying and spreading the virus may be asymptomatic and never be tested, impeding efforts to determine how many people are infected. According to tracking data from Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. has had more than 2.8 million confirmed cases and over 129,000 deaths.

Trump has repeatedly made false statements about the coronavirus while downplaying its effects ahead of the November election — sometimes at events that health experts fear would only infect more people.

Hahn declined to defend Trump’s “99 percent” remark as well.

“Do you have any evidence that is an accurate statement?” Raddatz asked him.

“Well, let’s talk about where we are right now,” he said, pointing broadly to new spikes in U.S. coronavirus cases.

“I want to ask you again, Dr. Hahn,” Raddatz replied. “The president said, ‘We show cases, 99 percent of which are totally harmless.’ We have more than 129,000 dead and more than 2.8 million cases. How many cases would you say are harmless?”

He dodged again. “This is a very rapidly moving epidemic, rapidly moving pandemic,” he said. “And any death, any case, is tragic. And we want to do everything we can to prevent that.”

CNN anchor Dana Bash also pressed Hahn on the subject during an interview on “State of the Union.”

"No health expert that we have found can back that up. Can you?” Bash asked about the purported 99 percent number.

“It’s just too early,” Hahn replied.

“It’s really important to stick to the question about the 99 percent that the president threw out there. I can tell you: It's not true,” Bash said, citing official estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Hahn dodged again, simply saying he agreed with the CDC estimates — without saying he disagreed with Trump’s.

“Is the president wrong?” Bash asked.

“I’m not going to get into who’s right and who’s wrong,” Hahn replied.

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