Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar told Breitbart News exclusively that President Donald Trump in the coming days will work with his medical and scientific advisers to make a determination on how and when to reopen the country after wide-scale closure in the effort to stop the spread of the Chinese coronavirus.
Azar is one of Trump’s closest advisers and a top member of Vice President Mike Pence’s Coronavirus Task Force to lead the American response to this crisis. He said that the president will consult with White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Dr. Stephen Hahn, among others, about the so-called “curve” of the disease and how effective the extraordinary measures to stop its spread taken by Americans nationwide have been.
“The president will look at the data with his top medical advisers, people like Dr. Debbie Birx, Tony Fauci, Robert Redfield, Steve Hahn at FDA, as well as I’m sure outside advisers, and will make a decision in the next week whether to continue the 15 days or whether there are appropriate modifications he would make to the rest of the country,” Azar told Breitbart News in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “For instance, whether it’s to look, as Dr. Birx I believe said yesterday in the press conference, to look at maybe focusing in localized areas instead of common national recommendations.”
“But that will be from what his advisers are seeing in the data, where the hotspots are, and whether we’re seeing communities that have taken these types of efforts and actually lived up to them, if you’re seeing a bending of the curve from an epidemiological perspective,” he explained. “That might be difficult because with epidemiological data there’s always a lag in terms of what you’re seeing, so some of this, in terms of the advice from his top scientific advisers, will be based on their experience and expertise, and I’m sure the president will have to balance against that the very valid concerns about the impact on the economy and the social fabric in the United States against those restrictions.”
The data that the president and his team of doctors and scientists will consider as they make their decision on reopening America, Azar said, is most importantly mortality rates of the disease—but also infection rates and other data.
“Dr. Birx said yesterday at the press conference the most important data point you look at that is essentially irrefutable is mortality data,” Azar said. “How many people are dying from Covid-19? That will be your firmest bit of data in assessing the situation. You will also look at infection rates and new cases, but the problem there is you never can test everybody. So the testing gives you an indicator and gives you a trend, but it is certainly less secure information than mortality data that you would look at.”
Trump, later on Tuesday after Azar’s interview with Breitbart News, said during a Fox News town hall that he hopes to reopen much of the United States by Easter Sunday, April 12. Trump, with Dr. Birx standing alongside him on Monday evening in the White House briefing room, began signaling the reopening of the country. He seems to have an ally in New York’s Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has also voiced support for reopening the country.
President Trump has called this fight against the virus a “war” against an “invisible enemy” and has noted how people are calling him a “wartime president” in responding to the crisis. If that’s the case, that Trump is leading an American war again the virus, then that means Azar is one of the president’s generals in this war. In that vein, asked how President Trump is approaching this from a wartime perspective, Azar explained that Trump has rallied the whole country against the coronavirus in much the same way President Woodrow Wilson did in World War I or President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in World War II.
“President Trump as our commander in chief has been marshaling every resource, not just of our government but of the economy as well, in the way that President Wilson in World War I would have or President Roosevelt in World War II,” Azar said. “That’s where you see the complete mobilization of the production capacity of the United States to make sure we have the personal protective equipment and supplies, that we have ventilators, that we have hospital capacities, that we can handle the surge—that we have the same country that did the Manhattan Project develop a vaccine [candidate] within three days, three days of getting the Chinese sequence, we have a vaccine candidate that is now in human testing eight weeks after that was developed at a historically fast rate, that we marshal all of our resources to therapeutics. So it’s really that kind of mentality that President Trump leads, like a wartime president in harvesting every aspect of the government, the economy, and the social order towards defeating an enemy.”
What’s more, while President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act through which the federal government can compel companies to make products necessary for addressing the national emergency, he has not needed to actually force any company to make any product as of this time because companies are stepping up and helping voluntarily. Azar told Breitbart News this is because the president has rallied the whole country behind his “Whole of America” approach to winning this war.
“Because of President Trump’s leadership and his call to action, he has mobilized the entire economy,” Azar said. “We see this and we see companies coming forward and saying ‘how can I help?’ Not saying ‘How can I help and pay me’ even, but just ‘how can I help?’ You’ve heard of major auto manufacturers saying that we will make ventilators for the country, you’ve seen industrial suppliers come forward and say ‘I have half a million or a million N95 respirators’—those are the masks—‘here, have them, I’m giving them to you’ instead of the days where they might put a markup on that, and say ‘I’ve got them but here’s a price.’ The president has called all of the country towards this war on the invisible enemy. They’re coming forward, and so while we have those authorities if we need to, I have been very impressed by the nation’s manufacturers in particular coming forward to do everything they can do to help our country.”
Azar also said that regarding critical supply chains for key pharmaceuticals and medical supplies and devices, this crisis has highlighted President Trump’s vision—which he has believed and fought for even before coronavirus—pushing for bringing manufacturing back home domestically is correct. Azar also said that he is not concerned that any critical medications will be withheld from foreign countries, including especially China, despite some rumblings from Chinese state media about threats to withhold medicines from the U.S. amid this crisis.
“These are complex multi-billion dollar supply chains with sterile FDA-approved manufacturing, so they don’t move overnight, but this certainly has highlighted an issue President Trump was already concerned about which is thinking about medical products as strategic products for the safety of our country and thinking in the future about how that supply chain needs to reside and be less dependent on foreign sources,” Azar said. “I’m confident that President Trump in his dealings with President Xi and China will ensure that we have access to products that we need if they’re able to be produced. That’s why it’s good that China has bent its curve and is getting back to work and is reopening factories. I’m sure President Trump will, as he always does, fight for the American worker and fight for our healthcare in working with any country.”
On chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, anti-malarial drugs that have shown anecdotal promise in treating people who become infected with coronavirus, Azar said that Trump’s vision as president on this matter and more broadly with the field of emerging medicines for patients in dire need has been clear. He called Trump the “Right to Try president” after the president’s successful efforts in getting exploratory treatments to patients in need, and said Trump is aiming to follow that same vision of bringing hope to the public with these experimental and thus-far-untested medications.
“This is an example of President Trump’s longstanding commitment to patients in distress have access to even experimental therapies as long as they go in with their eyes open that there are risks with unproven therapies that have not been established as safe for use by the FDA,” Azar said. “The president will leave no stone unturned to be sure that there are therapeutics available for people to try. Remember, this is the Right to Try president. This is the president who was the first to get Right to Try legislation so that people who have no hope could have new hope on new therapies that haven’t yet been proven but could give that a try. That’s the same mentality he’s bringing here to COVID-19, which is if there are products that doctors think might be helpful, we need to make sure there are no regulatory barriers to the doctors being able to use them if they might be able to save a patient’s life.”
Azar concluded the interview by again laying out the end game in the effort to eradicate the coronavirus and what steps the government is taking to crush it and be ready in case it comes back later.
“Diseases have a natural curve to them,” Azar said. “That’s why we talk about the ‘curve.’ There’s a natural increase and then decrease with any disease, whether that’s the nature of the disease or, as what happens with most respiratory illnesses, a seasonality whereas as warmer weather approaches people engage in natural social distancing—they’re outside and more spread out—or even as the disease responds unfavorably to humid and warmer conditions. That’s why our goal is if we can delay this curve through the president’s historic actions and contain it and keep it outside of our borders with restrictions on travel from China, from Europe, and from Iran et cetera—or with our 15 Days to Slow the Spread action to flatten that curve and to make sure during its impact that it’s not overtaxing our health care system’s capacity. There will be a natural decline in that curve. It will happen. We use that time effectively to develop a vaccine and therapeutics so that in the event that the curve returns with a wave in the fall or next winter, if there’s seasonality and it were to come back, we will continue to work on those longer-term efforts like therapies and vaccines.”