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News Brief: WHO Meeting, Hydroxychloroquine, Senate Panel Hearing

May 19, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 8:13 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president is making his signature move against the World Health Organization.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. The U.S. is threatening to permanently cut its funding. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar addressed a meeting of the WHO. Here's what he said.

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ALEX AZAR: We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control. There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed. And that failure cost many lives.

KING: Azar was talking about attempts to get early information from China. Now, the U.S. is being criticized for its response to the pandemic and has turned the blame on the WHO. We've seen the president do this on other issues, of course - China, Mexico, his border wall, even pandemic aid. He kind of grabs attention by threatening to cut off money.

INSKEEP: NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien has been following this thread. Hey there, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Granting that this is a thing the president does, what, in this case, is he saying?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. To sum it up, I mean, he's saying that the WHO, for political reasons and because it's unwilling to stand up to China, downplayed the initial significance of this outbreak. He's asserting that as early as December 30, the WHO knew how bad this was going to be and that there was a major public health concern in Wuhan.

Some of the allegations in the letter assume that the WHO has far more power than it actually does to investigate outbreaks. He claims that Taiwan told the WHO on December 30 that there was human-to-human transmission of the virus, which wasn't exactly what they had said, and it definitely hadn't been validated at that point. But the point is that as the largest funder to the World Health Organization, he's not only threatening to cut off funding in the midst of this pandemic, he's threatening to pull the U.S. out of the organization altogether, saying that it's no longer serving America's interests.

INSKEEP: OK. So that threat seized attention as the WHO held its annual meeting.

BEAUBIEN: Right.

INSKEEP: Did the meeting make any progress in global efforts against the pandemic, though?

BEAUBIEN: There were some steps forward and some steps back. And the main goal of this meeting is to set the WHO's policy on how it moves forward in addressing this particular pandemic that's gripping the whole world at the moment. And there are a couple of key issues that the assembly is trying to deal with. The one is the issue of a vaccine. Will countries come together, pool their resources - their labs, their scientists - develop a vaccine and make it universally available? Or are sort of all the individual countries or blocs of countries going to work it out on their own?

And the other contentious issue is this question of the WHO's response to this and whether there should be an independent review of the work now or later after the pandemic is more under control.

INSKEEP: And that dispute with the United States and the WHO, of course, also relates to China. The question is, did the WHO do all of - it could to get early information out of China? The United States is also blaming China. Has the dispute between those two great powers made it harder to coordinate a response?

BEAUBIEN: It has. And what's sort of interesting watching this assembly is you've got member states - 194 representatives from all of these different countries coming on one after another - and most of them are talking about trying to pull together. And at the same time that you've got that going on, you've got the United States and China going at each other. I mean, started out fairly civil - but by the end of it, you had China bashing back at the United States. Then later, you have Trump coming out on Twitter with this letter basically saying he's pulling out. So amidst all of this, the fight between the U.S. and China is really overshadowing everything.

INSKEEP: OK. Jason, thanks for the update.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

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INSKEEP: The president says he is trying to protect himself against coronavirus by taking an unproven drug.

KING: Right. A now familiar name - hydroxychloroquine.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hydroxychloroquine?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm taking it, hydroxychloroquine. Right now, yeah. Couple weeks ago, started taking it 'cause I think it's good. I've heard a lot of good stories. And if it's not good, I'll tell you right - I'm not going to get hurt by it.

KING: For two months, the president has been promoting this drug, which is approved to fight malaria. He's even said, what do you have to lose? Now researchers say there are side effects, so essentially you might have something to lose.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Palca is here to bring us up to date on the science. Hi there, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should remember this is an anti-malarial drug. It's been around for that purpose but with the side effects. What does the research say about this drug and COVID-19?

PALCA: Well, the results so far have been mixed. There were some very preliminary studies saying that it might have a benefit. That got some people, including the president, very excited. And they were suggesting, yes, we should give it to patients who are very sick. But the bulk of the research studies - the carefully done clinical studies don't show a clear benefit and do show some risks. So it hasn't been widely accepted for that purpose. There are still studies underway.

The reason people are interested in this drug is in laboratory studies, it has been shown to block the ability of the virus to infect cells and replicate itself. So there is a theoretical reason to think it works. And in terms of prevention studies, at the moment, there are two going on. But the results aren't in from those yet, so you can't say for sure whether it's effective at preventing infection or not.

INSKEEP: I want to be as clear as I can about the side effects. You may be fine, but studies show that there's an increased percentage of risk of - well, what exactly? What are the dangers?

PALCA: Well, there are heart conditions that can be caused or exacerbated. There are some negative relationship to diabetes. But people have taken this. People take it now when they're going into malaria-endemic regions and they want to prevent malaria. But right now, the data in terms of preventing infection with coronavirus is more or less like my cousin's sister's friend's sister knew someone who knew someone who took hydroxychloroquine every day of her life and lived to be 100, so I'll do it. And that's usually not considered scientific evidence.

INSKEEP: And that is effectively what the president said - I've heard good stories, so...

PALCA: Right.

INSKEEP: ...I'm taking it. He also says, though, he got a sign-off from his physicians Sean Conley. What does the doctor say?

PALCA: Well, the doctor said - and this is the quote from the White House - "After numerous discussions he and I had regarding the evidence for and against the use of hydroxychloroquine, we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks." Now, the question in my mind is - I mean, that doesn't tell us what evidence he was weighing. The risks are clear. The benefits are uncertain. It's a little hard to know how you weigh those.

INSKEEP: So what we know is the president really liked this and talked with his doctor a lot about it and eventually was able to get, we think, a prescription for it. Or do we not even know that exactly?

PALCA: I presume. The president says he's taking it, and the doctor says he talked about it with the president. So that's what we know.

INSKEEP: OK. Joe, thanks for the update - really appreciate it.

PALCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joe Palca.

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INSKEEP: Today U.S. senators question two officials who've been handing out money on a scale that has rarely been seen in the history of the world.

KING: They are Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who's overseeing relief payments to businesses - that's part of $3 trillion approved by Congress - and Fed Chair Jerome Powell, who's pumped even more money into the economy. While they are taking those questions, we should note that Congress is trying to agree on another relief bill.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales joins us. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do Mnuchin and Powell have to say and have to answer for?

GRISALES: So in a preview to their testimony, Powell is expected to highlight the dire impacts of the virus - how 20 million have lost jobs in the last two months, reversing nearly 10 years of gains. Mnuchin, on the other hand, is expected to touch on the aid distributed so far, including $240 billion in payments to Americans. Mnuchin is also expected to hammer home an administration message that there will be a strong recovery after all of this.

INSKEEP: He says there will be a strong recovery. Hasn't Jerome Powell, who'll be sitting next to him or close to him - I guess more than 6 feet away, remote or whatever. But in any case, hasn't Jerome Powell been a little more dire in his predictions?

GRISALES: He has been. Mnuchin, on one hand, has sided with Republicans, who say there's no rush for more aid for the economy. He's echoed what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said - let's see how this money we've already appropriated is working. But Powell, on the other hand, is singing a different tune. Here's Powell talking to CBS' "60 Minutes" on what Congress can focus on next.

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JEROME POWELL: Policies that help businesses avoid avoidable insolvencies and that do the same for individuals - keep workers in their homes, keep them paying their bills, keep families solvent.

GRISALES: So this is a theme that we've been hearing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. Pelosi has quoted Powell frequently in her efforts to restart talks with Republicans to add more aid to the economy.

INSKEEP: Now let's remember that money being distributed primarily through Mnuchin's department, the Treasury Department. There is an oversight panel asking, how's it going? What's it say?

GRISALES: So it's not a great review. The panel's report says that a $500 billion program administered by the Fed and the Treasury has hardly approved any loans yet. This is part of the CARES bill, a provision to loan money to businesses, states and cities. But it's been plagued with hurdles slowing down lending. So the commission says there's a long list of questions for them to address to improve this effort.

INSKEEP: How does this testimony today relate to the ongoing debate about whether to send a few trillion more dollars out the door, which is something that the House, at least, wants to do?

GRISALES: Right. This is having an impact. Democrats are planning to take these witnesses and, in turn, Republicans to task. We should note - everyone is dialing in remotely. And that said, in a preview of his comments, the ranking chairman, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, is planning to push the witnesses on what they're doing to help essential workers. Republicans, on the other hand, want to highlight what's worked so far and defend the administration's posture. And although the economy, as it worsens, this raises pressures on Republicans, it could be some time before we see them return to the negotiating table.

INSKEEP: I suppose because they're remote, they have all kinds of opportunities to avoid questions - I'm sorry. The video connection isn't very good - cant hear you.

GRISALES: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly.

INSKEEP: Not that they'll do that - we're joking. We're joking. Claudia, thank you so much.

GRISALES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Claudia Grisales. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.