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Vaccine Breakthrough and the Stealth Task Force

There were clues Monday that the White House Corona Virus Task Force still exists, a sighting of two of its members and the disclosure by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that he will attend Task Force meetings this week. Otherwise there was no sign of the NIH’s Tony Fauci nor of the Task Force response coordinator Deborah Birx. Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield stayed out of sight along with Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

Once upon a time, of course, there were daily Task Force briefings at the White House. They faded away after April 24 because…was it the virus was no longer a medical challenge? There must have been some good reason. Now, when major virus events are happening, the Task Force has been out of the public eye.

No one from the Task Force, for instance, commented on the big news of the day, the report from drug manufacturer Moderna that its ongoing development of a vaccine produced a preliminary signal that suggested it might eventually generate immunity. Was it as big an apparent breakthrough as it seemed, so much earlier than anyone expected? What did Dr. Fauci think about that?

The Dow industrials, in a run of vaccine euphoria that permeated stocks all day, clocked a 912-point or 3.9% gain on the news, its best day in about a month and a half. Yet gold, a haven for pessimists, reached its highest level in eight years.

No medical expert on the Task Force came forward to venture an opinion on President Trump’s afternoon disclosure that he is taking a hydroxychloroquine pill once a day along with zinc. He started the regimen after both his military valet and Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary tested positive.

No one on the Task Force commented on the widespread partial re-openings among almost all states, the pictures of crowded beaches and other exceptions to physical distancing. There were no answers offered as to how many states there are in which virus deaths are still increasing. According to those in the news media who try to keep track, there are still eight states including Texas where new cases and deaths, according to experts, have not yet peaked. El Paso, a hotspot, had its re-opening delayed Monday. Yet elsewhere in that state a long list of businesses can increase capacity Friday.

The total deaths from across the nation are still going up, but at a slower rate. Yet the total death toll has crossed 90,000 and some projections anticipate 100,000 deaths by the end of the month or soon after. Still there has been no correlation between the re-openings so far and a rebound in total cases. It may be too early to tell or something else, like widespread mask wearing, is helping.

Wait, you say. The president is taking hydroxychloroquine? We’ve been told by the FDA that it should only be used as a virus treatment under hospital supervision and even then can cause alterations in heart rhythm. Otherwise, is there any evidence it prevents the coronavirus in someone who tests negative? We’ll ask the Task Force at the next opportunity.

About the sightings, the Task Force member Seema Verma was on Fox News Monday to say nursing homes, the most vulnerable targets of the virus with up to 40% of the deaths, are now recommended to test residents and staff. If they don’t it’s possible testing could become a requirement, she said. So far only New York State requires nursing home staff to be tested twice a week, despite opposition from operators.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who once was Task Force chairman, was also on Fox, to strike back at Sunday’s statement by presidential adviser Peter Navarro in which for the second time he blamed the Centers for Disease Control for delaying development of a virus test that worked. “Inaccurate and inappropriate,” Azar said.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, who is reporting to the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday on the many virus response programmes under way, has on his official schedule that he is attending Task Force meetings every day this week. One thing both parties in Congress want to know is why Mnuchin is sitting on more than $400 billion in intended business support instead of spending it.

Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell testifies along with Mnuchin on what the Fed is doing and there were no surprises in his prepared remarks published Monday.

Wait, you say again, President Trump is taking hydroxychlorquine? Does the White House physician know about that? Yes, Navy Dr. Sean Conley issued a statement at 8:04 p.m. ET Monday night that said, “After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.”

There were no details about what the “use” is supposed to accomplish in someone who tests negative several times a week and who does not take the precaution of wearing a mask. The president made his disclosure in an offhand remark as part of a two-hour elaborately staged discussion with operators of some of the nation’s biggest restaurant chains of pandemic aid to their industry – immediately disregarded by reporters surprised by the announcement

Is there any evidence hydroxychloroquine works, the president was asked? “Here we go.” Trump said. “Are you ready?  Here’s my evidence.  I get a lot of positive calls about it.”

Aside from his testimony to a Senate committee a week ago, the NIH’s Fauci began to be less visible after he cautioned about hydroxychloroquine in words similar to those he used on Fox April 3: “We still need to do the definitive studies to determine whether any intervention, not just this one, is truly safe and effective.”

Colin Lambert

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