By: Betsy Swan & Olivia Messer – thedailybeast.com – March 11, 2020
Last week, Republican members of Congress heard a sober warning in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill: There’s a good chance most people in the United States will eventually be exposed to the novel coronavirus, according to one former official.
The assessment, from a former White House public-health official who now works in the pharmaceutical industry, did not suggest that most people will become infected or ill—rather, just that most will encounter the virus, which has killed at least two dozen Americans and infected hundreds more.
Not all public-health experts share that view. And not everyone exposed to the virus will become infected. Still, the briefing highlighted the potential gravity of the growing crisis.
Two sources–a member of Congress who attended the briefing and a second person with knowledge of it–described the remarks, made last week, to The Daily Beast. They were delivered by Rajeev Venkayya, the president of the Global Vaccine Business Unit at Tokyo-based pharmaceutical giant Takeda. The member of Congress said the comment was “sobering,” while the second person noted it came during a discussion about how to manage the costs of medical care related to the coronavirus. Venkayya pointed out that widespread access to medical care will be vital, given the likely breadth of the exposure, that source said.
Venkayya confirmed to The Daily Beast through a spokesperson that he made the remark about the broad scope of likely exposure, and did not provide further comment on the briefing. He was previously director of vaccine delivery for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program, according to his bio on Takeda’s website. Before that, he worked in the George W. Bush White House as special assistant to the president for biodefense, where he led efforts to develop and implement the national strategy for pandemic influenza.
The remarks came in a briefing to House Republicans. Executives from multiple pharmaceutical companies spoke to the members, as did Vice President Mike Pence. The comment on most Americans’ likely potential exposure to the virus came after Pence left the briefing, the sources noted. Spokespersons for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Neither did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The comment appeared to go further than the most recent public warnings from the CDC. Nancy Messonnier, director of the the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, said in a press call Monday that “as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time either this year or next be exposed to this virus and there’s a good chance many will become sick.”
In that call, Messonnier—who has not shied away from issuing dire warnings about the public health risks posed by the outbreak—took a comparatively reassuring tone.
“Right now in the United States, most communities, by far the vast majority of communities, are not having community transmission,” she said. “This is a time for people to prepare for what they might need to do, but not a time for people to clear out the shelves.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Venkayya gave more detail about his concerns regarding the spread of the virus, which appears to be particularly dangerous to the elderly.
“In my view, we have been past the point of containment since late January,” he said, noting Takeda asked its employees on Feb. 9 to cancel all non-essential international travel–more than a week before the first deaths in Iran and before news broke of the cluster of cases in Italy.
“We haven’t done a good job of explaining that case reports don’t reflect the global spread of the virus, because: (1) diagnostic testing hasn’t been widely available; and (2) clinicians and public health officials haven’t appreciated the speed and stealth of this outbreak,” he continued. “This has led to a dangerous sense of complacency in many places.”
“We can look at South Korea and Italy as possible glimpses into the future in parts of the U.S.,” he added. “Those are developed countries with well-functioning health systems, so there is no reason to believe this couldn’t happen here. We can’t expect everywhere to be like Singapore.”
Cases have boomed over the past few weeks in both South Korea and Italy, where more than 9,000 people had confirmed cases as of Tuesday evening and officials implemented an unprecedented lockdown. Singapore, meanwhile, has won praise from the head of the World Health Organization for its aggressive action to contain the virus. The city-state with a population of 5.6 million people has confirmed 166 cases as of March 10, according to The Straits Times, and no deaths.
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