President Trump on Thursday directed the Food and Drug Administration to repurpose an anti-malarial drug for use against the coronavirus and told states to order ventilators instead of relying on him, saying his administration is “not a shipping clerk.”
He blamed China for the spread of the virus, amid claims he was not prepared, and pledged to “live with” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision on whether to postpone the Summer Games in Tokyo.
Mr. Trump said the malaria drug — hydroxychloroquine — had a “very encouraging” impact on patients with the virus and it is “not going to kill anybody,” since it is a well-established treatment.
The Food and Drug Administration says states can administer the drug to coronavirus patients through a prescription.
“We’re going to be able to make the drug available almost immediately,” Mr. Trump said.
The president also cited the promise of another drug, remdesivir, from Gilead Sciences.
Remdesivir has been used in Washington state under “compassionate use,” a process in which drugs that aren’t fully licensed for use can be wielded against new threats.
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said he’s accelerating that process for a range of existing drugs, though clinical trials and widespread use could be months away.
“They’re already approved for other diseases,” he said.
Mr. Trump is scrambling to keep up with a coronavirus that has infected more than 9,400 Americans and killed at least 150, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Testing is ramping up, however, so the full extent of the situation is unknown.
Deborah Birx, the U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, said testing is unveiling many more cases, though the proportion of people coming back positive is about 10% to 11%.
“That means that 90% of the illnesses out there, even the severe ones, are not COVID-19,” she said.
She said about half of the U.S. cases are concentrated in 10 counties, as hot spots in Washington state, California and New York take stringent measures to restrict public movement.
“I think they actually are doing a lot. I know New York has been doing a lot,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re all working very hard to quarantine.”
Mr. Trump insisted his administration was prepared for the pandemic, despite widespread reports of shortages of medical equipment and testing.
“Nobody in their wildest dreams would have ever thought that we need tens of thousands of ventilators,” Mr. Trump said.
A New York Times report on Thursday said government exercises, including one run last year, warned the U.S. was unprepared for a pandemic like the one that’s unfolding now.
“We were very prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for is the media,” Mr. Trump said, arguing he didn’t get credit for his early decision to restrict travel from China.
The president also said he hasn’t used the Defense Production Act, despite preparing to invoke it Wednesday, because he expects states to order things like ventilators first. He said he will use federal power to direct procurement as needed.
“The states are supposed to get it, but we’re helping the states,” Mr. Trump said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Trump should use the full powers of the Korean War-era law immediately, saying there isn’t a day to lose as hospitals complain of shortages. Some health workers were told to use bandannas in lieu of masks.
China, meanwhile, reported zero local infections for the first time since the start of the outbreak — a major breakthrough, though many people do not trust the numbers from the communist government.
Mr. Trump complained that Beijing’s reluctance to identify and trumpet their epidemic out of Wuhan, Hubei Province, in December and January resulted in the global crisis.
“It could have been stopped right where it came from, China,” Mr. Trump said.
The administration is pleading with Americans to stay home when possible, avoid groups of 10 or more and enjoy takeout instead of entering restaurants, many of which have closed, anyway.
Changes have affected the White House itself. Reporters have their temperatures checked at the gate and must sit with seats in between them in the briefing room.
“With social distancing, the media has been much nicer,” Mr. Trump said.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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