White House considers winding down coronavirus task force

The White House coronavirus task force led by Mike Pence could be wound down as soon as the end of the month, according to the US vice-president, even as the country’s fatalities spiked.

Mr Pence told reporters talks were under way about “what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level”.

President Donald Trump, who left the Washington area for the first time in weeks to visit a Honeywell plant in Arizona that manufactures respiratory masks, defended the timetable, saying the US could not be “closed for the next five years”.

The US death toll surpassed 65,000 on Tuesday after the country reported 2,527 fatalities, its third-highest daily tally. There have been nearly 1.2m confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US since the start of the year.

The spike in deaths came amid signs that New York state, the epicentre of the US outbreak, was bringing its caseload under control, with only 230 fatalities in the last 24 hours. That was near the lowest levels since late March.

Other states, however, saw sharp daily increases, with New Jersey, the second-hardest hit state, recording a further 334 deaths and Pennsylvania reporting a record 554 fatalities.

“You can say there might be a recurrence, and there might be,” Mr Trump said at a round table discussion with Native American leaders from Arizona. “Most doctors, or some doctors, say that it will happen. It will be a flame and we are going to put the flame out.”

Mr Pence said officials were looking at “the Memorial day window, early-June window” as a moment to potentially start winding down the task force. The Memorial day US holiday falls on May 25 this year.

Mr Trump and Mr Pence’s comments came as the former head of the US biomedical research agency filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging he was removed from his job after pushing for robust scientific evidence and a more aggressive response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Rick Bright, who led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority until earlier this year, alleged he was removed in part because of his reluctance to push chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, antimalarial drugs championed by Mr Trump as coronavirus treatments.

In a complaint filed with the US Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency with prosecutorial powers, Dr Bright said he “resisted efforts” by the Trump administration to promote the medications and “award lucrative contracts for these and other drugs even though they lacked scientific merit and had not received prior scientific vetting”.

The coronavirus task force was set up in January to co-ordinate the federal response to Covid-19. Deborah Birx, an immunologist and army colonel, is the task force’s response co-ordinator. Mr Pence said the White House would “keep” Dr Birx “around every bit as long as we need to”.

Mr Trump later said he would continue to take advice from Dr Birx and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter that it was “totally false” to suggest Mr Trump would no longer consult medical experts if the task force was shuttered. The president “will continue his data-driven approach towards safely reopening”, she said.

Bob Casey, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, said disbanding the task force was “exactly the wrong approach”.

“The Trump administration seems to think they can close their eyes and pretend this pandemic isn’t happening. They can’t,” he said. “This is an ongoing crisis which requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Dr Bright, who wants to be reinstated to his position, alleged he was being sidelined in decisions about where to invest his agency’s funds even before the pandemic, as “cronyism” was prioritised over science and contracts were given to companies with political connections to the Trump administration.

He said the practice dated back to 2017, when he alleged he was pressured to invest agency funds in a company because of its leaders’ connections to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.

Dr Bright accused the leadership of the US Department of Health and Human Services of having a “lax and dismissive attitude” in the face of the “deadly threat confronting our country”.

HHS did not respond to a request for comment.

Dr Bright alleged the administration ignored his early warnings that the US was not ready for Covid-19, lacking N95 masks, supplies for diagnostics and even needles that will be necessary to administer a future vaccine.

In an assessment of the potential drugs for the disease, which he made in late January to early February, Dr Bright said he saw the promise of Gilead’s remdesivir, which last week showed positive results in a trial, and advised of the “urgent need” to secure a supply.

Additional reporting by Peter Wells in New York

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