Undercutting Scientists, Trump Says Tightening Covid-19 Vaccine Guidelines ‘Sounds Like a Political Move’


President Trump said Wednesday that the White House “may or may not” approve new Food and Drug Administration guidelines requiring outside experts to weigh in before the agency approves a coronavirus vaccine, and said the plan “sounds like a political move,” undercutting government scientists who had said the opposite just hours earlier.

The president’s comments to reporters in the White House briefing room came after four of the administration’s top health officials who are helping to steer the government’s coronavirus response appeared in front of a Senate panel in an effort to bolster public trust in the F.D.A.

The officials told the panel that they had complete faith in the agency and that science and data — not politics — were guiding its decisions.

Their testimony came as the F.D.A. prepared to issue stricter guidelines for the emergency authorization of any new coronavirus vaccine. That would add a new layer to the vetting process.

But Mr. Trump has insisted a vaccine may be ready as early as next month — and he sounded more than a little skeptical about the new guidelines.

“That has to be approved by the White House,” he said, adding, “We may or may not approve it.”

The president then said, “I think that was a political move more than anything else.”

Asked about it a second time, Mr. Trump doubled down, repeating that the White House “may or may not” approve the new guidelines.

At Wednesday’s Senate hearing, the doctors — Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Admiral Brett P. Giroir, the coronavirus testing czar — defended the scientific integrity of the F.D.A. amid mounting evidence that President Trump and his administration have interfered with their agencies’ decision-making and growing public doubts about a coronavirus vaccine.

A day after reported U.S. deaths from the pandemic passed 200,000, lawmakers at the hearing pressed the scientists for assurances that the agency was not being influenced by politics. They were assured that this was not the case.

In a show of public support that would have been unnecessary in the pre-Trump era, all four doctors pledged to personally take any vaccine approved by the F.D.A. and said they would encourage their families to do the same.

Facing criticism over secrecy, several companies — including Johnson & Johnson on Wednesday — have taken the rare step of releasing the detailed blueprints of their trials, which are typically considered proprietary. And the F.D.A. is expected this week to release stricter guidelines outlining the criteria it will use to vet clinical trial data.

“We need multiple vaccines to work,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a virologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who led the development of the technology used in Johnson & Johnson’s trial. “There are seven billion people in the world, and no single vaccine supplier will be able to manufacture at that scale.”

Johnson & Johnson’s advanced trial, known as a Phase 3 trial, started on Monday. At a news conference, Dr. Paul Stoffels, the company’s chief scientific officer, said the company might be able to determine by the end of the year if the vaccine is safe and effective.

Johnson & Johnson has begun manufacturing the vaccine on an industrial scale to build up a supply that can be released immediately if the vaccine is authorized, Dr. Stoffels said in an interview on Wednesday. He expected to have tens of millions of doses ready by the end of the year. “Then we can ramp up to many more batches,” he said.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine uses an adenovirus to carry a gene from the coronavirus into human cells. The cell then produces coronavirus proteins, but not the coronavirus itself. These proteins can potentially prime the immune system to fight off a later infection by the virus.

Adenovirus vaccines must be kept refrigerated but does not need to be frozen, as the two front-runner vaccines, by Moderna and Pfizer, do. The freezing requirement could make the distribution of those vaccines difficult, especially to places without advanced medical facilities.

Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines also require two jabs given a few weeks apart, a significant logistical hurdle.

France raised its Covid-19 alert level in a number of areas across the country on Wednesday, and the authorities ramped up restrictions on public gatherings in several cities to prevent the health system from buckling under an influx of patients.

The new measures, which will take effect in the coming days, include the total closure of all bars and restaurants in the cities of Aix-en-Provence and Marseille and a ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people in Paris and a handful of other French cities.

Olivier Véran, the health minister, said at a news conference on Wednesday evening that the situation in France was “continuing to deteriorate.” The positivity rate for the virus has passed 6 percent, he said.

Mr. Véran said that the authorities were particularly worried because French hospitals were starting to feel the strain from new Covid-19 patients, who now represent nearly 20 percent of patients in intensive care across the country.

France is still far from the wave of hospitalizations it suffered earlier this year, but Mr. Véran said it was becoming increasingly hard to defer treatments or surgeries to make room for Covid-19 patients, as was widely done during the nation’s lockdown last spring.

Mr. Véran said that the new restrictions would be temporary and re-evaluated on a week-by-week basis and that the government would do all it could to avoid a second nationwide lockdown. He urged citizens to help avoid that.

“You can’t be extremely vigilant on the bus, in the metro, at the office, in shops,” he said, “and then completely let up your vigilance when you are in a bar, at home, or with family and friends.”

In other news around the world:

  • Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes of Belgium has taken a novel approach to reversing a rise in cases in her country: She loosened the rules. Ms. Wilmes said on Wednesday that masks would be required only in crowded places, not everywhere outdoors, as she had ordered in the summer. And while she still encouraged people to be in close contact with no more than five others at a time, broader socializing will be allowed if people keep their distance from one another. Many Belgians have clearly grown tired of strict social restrictions. By simplifying and clarifying them, Ms. Wilmes was attempting to reinvigorate public support — not to defeat the virus, but to live with it.

  • The regional government of Madrid said on Wednesday that it would request “urgent military and logistics” support from the central government to carry out tasks like setting up emergency tents for the homeless and disinfecting public areas. Spain is in the midst of a spike in cases centered in the capital, parts of which were again put under lockdown this week.

  • Foreigners with valid residence permits for work, personal matters and family reunions in China will be allowed to enter the country again without having to apply for new visas starting next week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Wednesday. Such foreign nationals have been barred since March.

  • About 600 pubs that serve only drinks can reopen in Northern Ireland on Wednesday for the first time in six months. Pubs that serve food were allowed to reopen in July. But they may face new restrictions after Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain announced this week that pubs, bars and restaurants in England would be required to close by 10 p.m. starting Thursday.

At least one coronavirus case had been reported in more than 100 school buildings and early childhood centers in the New York City school system by the first day of in-person instruction on Monday, according to the Department of Education.

Nearly all the buildings remained open, though six were closed temporarily, in accordance with city guidelines that only those schools that report at least two cases in different classrooms will be shut.

The cases occurred between Sept. 8, when teachers and staff members reported to schools, and Monday, when the first students entered classrooms.

In dozens of cases, the infected individuals got the positive test results and did not report to work, the department said. Others did report to school, and their close contacts in the buildings were told to quarantine for two weeks.

Avery Cohen, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that the cases included a “handful” of students, but that “the vast majority were among staff before schools reopened for students.”

Some public health experts said the statistics reflect a new reality.

With in-person learning taking place in a system with 1.1 million schoolchildren, 75,000 teachers, and 2,500 school buildings and early childhood centers, new cases will most likely be a daily occurrence, they said. Individual building closings will also be common, they said.

Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said New York City families should be prepared for a constant game of Whac-a-Mole. The virus is likely to re-emerge repeatedly in school buildings until there is either a vaccine or very frequent testing, he said.

Ideally, Dr. Mina said, 50 percent of all students and staff members should be tested three times a week.

In other news from around the United States:

  • For a fourth time, a game that had publicly become the University of Houston’s “season opener” was scratched. The game against the University of North Texas had been set for Saturday. College football schedules have been upended by the virus. In a statement, North Texas said four people associated with its football program had tested positive for the virus. But contact tracing, the university said, “left the football program unable to field a team for a game this week.”

  • Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri and his wife, Teresa, have both tested positive for the virus, officials said Wednesday. The governor’s office said the first lady had been tested after “displaying minor symptoms.” Kelli Jones, the communications director for the governor, said Mrs. Parson’s symptoms included “a little, tiny cough and a little sniffle.” The governor has no symptoms at this time, officials said. All official events have been canceled until further notice, the governor’s office said, and the governor’s staff has been tested and is awaiting results.

  • Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana announced on Wednesday that the state would gradually enter Phase 5 of reopening, from Sept. 26 to Oct. 17. “The numbers continue to track in the right direction,” Mr. Holcomb said. In the next phase, he said, residents would still be required to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing, but size limits on social gatherings and meetings would be lifted. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs would be allowed to operate at full capacity, he added. Indiana began easing restrictions in May, but by July, because of an increase in cases, Mr. Holcomb paused progress toward reopening.

  • The Baltimore city schools system is planning to lay off around 450 temporary employees and freeze hiring throughout the school system as it seeks to reduce a $21 million budget gap. Across the country, school districts struggling with the additional costs of remote learning and social distancing, combined with funding cuts, have also turned to layoffs. “Nobody’s coming to save us,” said the Baltimore schools chief executive officer, Sonja Santelises.

A South Korean government official apparently trying to defect to North Korea was shot and killed by troops in the North who set his body on fire for fear he might be carrying the coronavirus, South Korean officials said on Thursday.

The violent episode threatens to further derail diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The official who was killed was a first mate on a government ship​ monitoring fishing boats ​near a disputed sea border ​with North Korea early Monday. After he went missing, South Korean ships and planes conducted an extensive search but could not find him before he drifted into North Korean waters.

Indonesia’s Covid-19 death toll was on track to surpass 10,000 on Thursday, as new cases continued to surge across the nation and within the president’s cabinet.

The world’s fourth-most-populous country already has the second-highest death toll from the coronavirus in the Asia-Pacific region, after India. Experts believe that many more deaths have gone unreported in Indonesia because many patients suspected of having the disease died before their test results were returned.

Cases are still climbing, too: Indonesia, which until last week had never reached 4,000 new cases in a single day, has now passed that mark four times in the past five days. Over the past week it has reported nearly 30,000 new cases, on par with Israel, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

The minister of religious affairs, Fachrul Razi, 73, became the third member of President Joko Widodo’s cabinet to test positive, his office said Monday. The ministers of transportation and fisheries have both recovered but a top Jakarta government official died last week.

Indonesia was slow to adopt coronavirus restrictions earlier this year, then quick to lift them in the hope of reviving the economy. Jakarta, the capital, recently imposed a partial shutdown for the second time. But the government’s overall approach appears to have backfired as cases keep rising and the economy sputters.

The country’s economy is expected to contract this year for the first time since the Asian economic crisis of 1998, the finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, said Tuesday. She forecast a decline in the gross domestic product of as much as 1.7 percent this year.

When air travelers arrive at Helsinki’s airport and collect their luggage, they are now invited to wipe their necks for a quick 10-second coronavirus test that does not involve an uncomfortable nasal swab. After placing the sweaty wipe in a box, it is taken behind a wall to be sniffed. By a dog.

A couple of these coronavirus-sniffing canines began work at the Finnish airport on Wednesday as part of a pilot program that aims to detect the virus from an arriving passenger’s sweat.

Even with restrictions in place, the Philippines is struggling to control the outbreak. As of Wednesday, it had so far recorded nearly 300,000 cases and more than 5,000 deaths.

Already, about 27.3 million Filipinos have lost their jobs because of the resulting economic downturn. In the second quarter of the year, the country entered a recession, dropping 16.5 percent — its worst performance in nearly four decades.

“No one wants to see layoffs, but unfortunately they’re still on the table,” Mr. de Blasio said Wednesday. “This at least gives us a little more relief while we continue those conversations and try and find a larger solution.”

In other New York City news:

Reporting was contributed by Matt Apuzzo, Aurelien Breeden, Choe Sang-Hun, Michael Cooper, Ben Dooley, Rick Gladstone, Hana de Goeij, Joseph Goldstein, Abby Goodnough, Jason Gutierrez, Mike Ives, Corina Knoll, Sharon LaFraniere, Patricia Mazzei, Raphael Minder, Zachary Montague, Aimee Ortiz, Richard C. Paddock, Tariq Panja, Elian Peltier, Campbell Robertson, Dana Rubinstein, Adam Satariano, Anna Schaverien, Christopher F. Schuetze, Dera Menra Sijabat, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Kate Taylor, Noah Weiland, Billy Witz, Elaine Yu, Mihir Zaveri and Carl Zimmer.



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