COVID-19 misinformation by the United States
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Misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic by the United States consists of disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic propagated by officials of the United States government. The Trump administration in particular made a large number of misleading statements about the pandemic. A Cornell University study found that U.S. President Donald Trump was "likely the largest driver" of the COVID-19 misinformation infodemic in English-language media, downplaying the virus and promoting unapproved drugs. Others have also been cited as spreading misinformation, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, backing conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the virus, U.S. senators and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who downplayed the virus.
United States President Donald Trump and his top economic adviser Larry Kudlow have been accused of spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. On 25 February, Trump said, "I think that whole situation will start working out. We're very close to a vaccine." At the time, SARS-CoV-2 had been spreading in the United States undetected for weeks, and new vaccine development may require a minimum of a year to prove safety and efficacy to gain regulatory approval. In an interview with Sean Hannity on 4 March, Trump also claimed that the death rate published by the WHO was false, that the correct fatality rate was less than 1 percent, and said, "Well, I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number — and this is just my hunch — but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it's very mild, they'll get better very rapidly. They don't even see a doctor. They don't even call a doctor. You never hear about those people", that the potential impact of the outbreak was exaggerated by Democrats plotting against him, and that it was safe for infected individuals to go to work. In a later tweet, Trump denied having made claims regarding infected individuals going to work, contrary to footage from the interview.
The White House accused media of intentionally stoking fears of the virus to destabilize the administration. The Stat News reported that "President Trump and members of his administration have also said that US containment of the virus is 'close to airtight' and that the virus is only as deadly as the seasonal flu. Their statements range from false to unproven, and in some cases, underestimate the challenges that public health officials must contend with in responding to the virus." Around the same time the "airtight" claim was made, SARS-CoV-2 was already past containment; the first case of community spread of the virus had been confirmed, and it was spreading faster than severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, with a case fatality rate at least seven times the rate for seasonal flu.
Trump repeatedly compared COVID-19 to influenza, despite the fact that COVID-19's mortality rate is estimated to be approximately ten times higher. On 26 February, he stated: "This is a flu. This is like a flu". On 9 March, Trump compared the 546 known US cases of COVID-19 at the time and the 22 known deaths at the time to the tens of thousands of US deaths from flu each year. On 24 March, Trump argued that: "We lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu ... But we've never closed down the country for the flu." On 27 March, he stated: "You can call it a flu". On 31 March, Trump changed his stance: "It's not the flu ... It's vicious ... I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible, and I knew it could be maybe good."
On 2 March, Trump told the media he had heard that a COVID-19 vaccine would be available in "a matter of months", with "a year [being] an outside number", after Trump attended a discussion where his senior health official Anthony Fauci told him this process would take "a year to a year and a half" (at a minimum, Fauci later said). During that discussion, Trump repeatedly quizzed the leaders of pharmaceutical companies on the time needed to produce vaccines, stating "I like the sound of a couple of months better". The length of time is due in part to regulations and safeguards intended to guarantee efficacy and safety. On 4 March, Trump blamed the Barack Obama administration for making "a decision" that delayed COVID-19 testing by the Trump administration. The policy in question had never been modified by the Obama administration, despite plans to do so. The policy's overall legal roots date to 2004, before the Obama administration. Under the umbrella of Emergency Use Authorizations, the old policy stated that laboratory-developed tests "should not be used for clinical diagnoses without FDA's approval, clearance, or authorization during an emergency declaration". However, this policy was historically treated as a recommendation and generally unenforced, with no clear legal authority of the FDA in this area. The Trump administration continued to require laboratories to apply to the FDA for approval, but allowed the laboratories to test while the FDA processed the applications.
On 6 March, Trump over-promised on the availability of COVID-19 testing in the United States, claiming that "anybody that wants a test can get a test." Firstly, there were criteria needed to qualify for a test; recommendations were needed from doctors or health officials to approve testing. Secondly, the lack of test supplies resulted in some being denied tests even though doctors wanted to test them.
On 19 March, Trump falsely claimed the drug chloroquine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for COVID-19. This led the FDA to say it had not approved any drugs or therapies for COVID-19, and strongly advised people against taking it outside of a hospital or clinical trial, due to possibly fatal side effects. While Trump claimed that "we're going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately", the leader of the FDA said the drug would still need to be tested in a "large, pragmatic clinical trial" on subjects infected with COVID-19. While Trump promoted chloroquine as a potential "game changer", Fauci said positive results thus far were still based on anecdotal evidence and not "definitive" evidence from clinical trials. At a later press briefing, Trump prevented Fauci from answering a question about the medical evidence of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine. Trump also remarked that re-purposing existing drugs for COVID-19 is "safe" and "not killing people" (chloroquine is a form of treatment for malaria, while its derivative hydroxychloroquine is a form of treatment for lupus or arthritis), however most drugs may cause side effects. Potentially serious side effects from chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine include irregular heartbeats, tinnitus, blurred vision, muscle weakness or "mental changes". Overdoses of these drugs have been documented in scientific literature, including fatal overdoses. Demand for chloroquine in Lagos, Nigeria sharply increased after Trump's comments, with three people overdosing by 23 March. An Arizona engineer in his 60s died after ingesting a fish tank cleaner containing chloroquine phosphate in a vitamin cocktail prepared by his wife. The wife stated she intended to medicate her husband against the coronavirus after hearing Trump tout the potential benefits of chloroquine during a public briefing.
On 21 March, Trump addressed a shortage of ventilator supply in the United States, claiming that carmaker companies General Motors (GM) and Ford "are making them right now" when the companies were not producing ventilators at the time, and had yet to change their factories' production abilities.
On 30 March, Trump claimed his administration "inherited a broken test" for COVID-19. "That wasn't from us. That's been there a long time," he said. The claim was illogical because no previous administration could have prepared a test for a disease which had yet to emerge. COVID-19 emerged during Trump's presidency, having first been reported on 31 December 2019. The test was designed in 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control under the Trump administration. Trump continued to make the false claim on 19 April.
From 2 to 9 April, the White House was in a standoff with CNN, which frequently declined to air the daily coronavirus Task Force briefings, and which fact-checked Trump's remarks. The White House said that if CNN did not begin airing the part of the briefing that featured the Task Force members, including Mike Pence, then the White House would disallow national health experts (including Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx) from appearing on CNN. Pence relented and allowed Robert R. Redfield to appear on CNN.
During a 15 April White House news conference, President Trump said the US government is trying to determine if the COVID-19 virus emanated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The vice director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology called the accusations a "conspiracy theory".
On 23 April, after a Homeland Security official stated that certain disinfectants can kill the coronavirus on surfaces, Trump openly wondered if disinfectants could be used on humans "by injection", saying "it'd be interesting to check" if that was a potential treatment. Injecting disinfectants into the body is dangerous and potentially lethal. Trump also suggested another "interesting" method to be tested: "we hit the body with a tremendous—whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light ... supposing you brought the light inside of the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way." He asked coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx if heat or light can be used as a treatment, to which Birx stated she had not seen any treatments using heat or light. Trump attributed these ideas to him being "a person that has a good you-know-what".
The next day, the White House accused the media of taking Trump's words "out of context", while Trump defended himself by claiming he had spoken in a "very sarcastic" manner and that he had addressed his comment "to reporters ... just to see what would happen", this despite the video showing he had addressed not reporters but rather Deborah Birx directly, and had also been looking at Bill Bryan, head of the DHS science and technology division. In his defense, Trump also tried revising his comment to say disinfectant "would kill [the virus] on the hands, and that would make things much better." Disinfectants are useful for destroying microorganisms on inert surfaces, not on living tissue, and applying disinfectants on skin has the potential to cause irritation or chemical burns. After the president's remarks, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the makers of Lysol, the World Health Organization, and other government officials issued various advisories pointing out that it is already known to be harmful to use disinfectants or ultraviolet radiation on human bodies instead of inanimate surfaces, and Birx explained that these were not under investigation as possible treatments.
After Trump's comments, "hundreds of calls" were made to the Maryland health department emergency hotline "asking if it was right to ingest Clorox or alcohol cleaning products—whether that was going to help them fight the virus", stated the Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan. He called for the White House to communicate "very clearly on the facts", because people "certainly pay attention when the president of the United States is standing there giving a press conference". Other increases in calls to poison control centers were reported in the city of New York, and the states of Michigan, Tennessee, and Illinois. The state of Illinois also reported incidents where people have used detergents for sinus rinses, and gargling with a mixture of bleach and mouthwash. Officials of the state of Kansas said on 27 April that a man drank disinfectant "because of the advice he'd received", but did not clarify the source of the advice. When Trump was asked by a reporter about "a spike in people using disinfectant after your comments last week", Trump interrupted the question, stating: "I can't imagine why." The reporter continued by asking: "Do you take any responsibility?" Trump replied: "No, I don't."
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in April 2020, refused to rule out the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 escaped from Wuhan Institute of Virology during experiments and China covered it.
Mid and late 2020
On 4 July 2020, Trump falsely stated that "99 percent" of COVID-19 cases are "totally harmless". In the same speech, Trump contradicted several public health experts by saying that the U.S. will "likely have a therapeutic and/or vaccine solution long before the end of the year". FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn declined to state whether Trump's "99 percent" statement was accurate or to say how many cases are harmless.
As the U.S. COVID-19 daily new case count increased from about 20,000 on 9 June to over 50,000 by 7 July, Trump repeatedly insisted that the case increase was a function of increased COVID-19 testing. Trump's claims were contradicted by the facts that states having increased case counts as well as those having decreased case counts had increased testing, that the positive test rate increased in all ten states with the largest case increases, and that case rate increases consistently exceeded testing rate increases in states with the most new cases.
In a recorded interview with Bob Woodward on 7 February 2020, President Trump underscored the deadliness of the coronavirus in his recount of a conversation with President Xi Jinping of China, but, in another recorded interview with Woodward on 19 March, Trump revealed that he wanted to downplay the viral outbreak in order to not create a panic. The revelation of the recordings led to criticism that Trump had deliberately downplayed the threat of the virus to the public, while he actually knew the severity of the virus.
As reported cases reached new record highs in October 2020, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy named "ending the Covid-19 pandemic" as a top accomplishment of the Trump administration.
Several members of the US Senate—particularly Richard Burr (R-NC) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)—have come under scrutiny for sales of large amounts of stocks before the financial markets crashed due to the outbreak, sparking accusations that they had insider knowledge from closed-door briefings, while many of them publicly downplayed the risks posed by the health crisis to the US public. An audio recording from 27 February revealed that Burr (Senate Intelligence Committee chairman) gave dire warnings to a small group of well-connected constituents in private, contrasted in severity to his public statements and not known to the public, that the virus is "much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history", advising against travel to Europe (13 days before official warnings, 15 days before the ban), saying schools will be likely be closed (16 days before the closure), and suggesting the military might be mobilized (learned three weeks later from the recording).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in May 2020 falsely claimed that "clearly the Obama administration did not leave to [the Trump] administration any kind of game plan for" pandemics. Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law, stated that McConnell was "exactly right". However, the Obama administration had in actuality left a pandemic response playbook of 69 pages. That document explicitly cited novel coronaviruses as needing a major governmental response. Additionally, in January 2017, the Obama administration had gone through an exercise in pandemic response with incoming Trump administration members.
According to The Washington Post, Republican government members were largely influenced by series of articles by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, who consistently played down the scale of the epidemics, ridiculed the "panic" being spread by "progressives", made a number of incorrect statements about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, misapplied and misconstrued Darwinian evolutionary theory in regards to the pandemics, and predicted "about 500 deaths at the end" of the epidemics. Representative Louie Gohmert from Texas hinted in July that he caught coronavirus because he wore a mask more often in the days leading up to his infection.
Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, was widely criticized for providing poor and misleading information to the public. On 10 March, he said he would keep schools open and if an infected student was found to be in class it would take only a day to clean and re-open the school. De Blasio also said, "If you're under 50 and you're healthy, which is most New Yorkers, there's very little threat here." During a photo op at a public 3-1-1 call center, he told a caller there was no need to self-quarantine, despite the fact she had just returned from Italy. His instructions to the caller were subsequently reversed by city officials.
In a February 2021 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that "most signs point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, as the source of Covid-19", a theory that has been described as 'extremely unlikely' by scientists.
- Trump administration communication during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Veracity of statements by Donald Trump § COVID-19 pandemic
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