The White House coronavirus task force could be wound down as soon as the end of this month, Mike Pence, US vice-president, said on Tuesday, as Donald Trump insisted the US could not be “closed for the next five years”.
Mr Pence told reporters talks were under way about “what the proper time is for the [White House coronavirus] task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level”, adding: “It really is all a reflection of the tremendous progress we’ve made as a country.”
There have been nearly 1.2m confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US since the start of the year, and more than 60,000 Americans have died.
Mr Pence’s comments were echoed by Mr Trump, who left Washington for the first time in weeks on Tuesday to visit a Honeywell plant in Arizona that is manufacturing respiratory masks.
When asked why now was the right time to begin winding down the task force, Mr Trump replied: “We can’t keep our country closed for the next five years.
“You can say there might be a recurrence, and there might be,” the president said at a round table 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.
“We have a great country,” Mr Trump added. “We can’t keep it closed. I’ve had doctors say, well, why don’t we close it for a couple of years? This is the United States of America.”
The vice-president said officials were looking at “the Memorial day window, early-June window” as a time to start winding down the task force. The Memorial day US holiday falls on May 25 this year.
Mr Pence chairs the coronavirus task force, which 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 was going to “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 longtime director of the non-partisan National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary, said in a tweet: “Reporting on the task force is being misconstrued to suggest the White House is no longer involving medical experts. This is totally false. President @realDonaldTrump will continue his data-driven approach towards safely reopening.”
Bob Casey, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, said disbanding the coronavirus 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. This is an ongoing crisis which requires an all hands on deck approach.”
Mr Trump and Mr Pence’s comments came as the former head of the US government biomedical research agency filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was removed from his job in retaliation for pushing for robust scientific evidence and a more aggressive federal response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Rick Bright, who led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority until he was reassigned earlier this year, alleged he was removed from his role in part due to 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, Mr 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”.
Mr Bright also said he was concerned about political pressure to import drugs from a factory in Pakistan, which did not have the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.
In the complaint, Mr Bright, who wants to be reinstated to his previous position, alleged that even before the pandemic, he was being sidelined in decisions about where to invest Barda’s funds, as “cronyism” was prioritised over science, and contracts were given to companies with political connections to the Trump administration.
He claimed the practice dated back to 2017, when he alleged he was pressured to invest Barda funds in a company because of its leaders’ connections to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
Mr Bright accused US Health and Human Service department leadership 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.
He claimed 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, Mr 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.