Fact Check: Trump attacks WHO, vote-by-mail and repeats several false coronavirus claims

We are still reviewing some of Trump’s comments at the daily White House coronavirus briefing. We’ll update this article with additional fact checks.

The Food and Drug Administration recently gave doctors emergency authorization to use the medicines, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, to treat Covid-19 in hospitals but not at home. The FDA has not fully “approved” the drugs for Covid-19, which requires a much higher scientific standard.

“You are not going to die from this pill,” Trump said, before acknowledging that he isn’t a doctor but has reviewed some of the medical studies, adding, “I really think it’s a great thing to try.”

Facts First: There is no conclusive scientific evidence to support what Trump is saying. Clinical trials are underway, but the FDA and top public health officials have not endorsed Trump’s view that the drugs are already known to be effective against Covid-19 and can be taken safely.

Doctors have contradicted Trump’s specific comment that “you are not going to die” from these drugs. Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, recently told CNN “you could lose your life” from this unproven treatment, echoing warnings from other experts.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a glaring messaging gap between Trump and top public health officials about these drugs. While Trump touts them as miracle drugs that are on the brink of saving lives, the medical experts are cautiously waiting for scientific evidence.

CNN reported earlier on Tuesday that Trump’s comments have triggered a run on the drugs, with doctors and worried Americans emptying out pharmacies. These shortages pose potentially deadly risks to people with autoimmune diseases like lupus, who rely on hydroxychloroquine as a clinically proven treatment to reduce mortality, but are struggling to refill their prescriptions.

Some medical research suggests that the drugs could work against coronavirus, but the study most commonly cited by Trump was incredibly small and didn’t follow typical procedures for randomized trials. A more robust, large-scale clinical trial is underway now in New York.

On Tuesday, Trump also referenced a Democratic state lawmaker in Michigan who tested positive for the coronavirus but recovered, and now credits hydroxychloroquine for her success.

Moments before arriving in the White House briefing room, Trump tweeted a Fox News clip of an interview with the lawmaker. Like Trump, anchors and guests on Fox News have repeatedly touted the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine in recent weeks.

The lawmaker’s story is compelling, but anecdotal. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said that at this point, there is only anecdotal evidence that the drugs work.

Revisionist history on the flu

Reminded Tuesday that he had likened the coronavirus to the flu, Trump suggested that he was not downplaying the coronavirus when he did so.

“You said I said it was just like a flu. So the worst pandemic we ever had in this world was a flu, and it was called — you know that — it was in 1917, 1918. And anywhere from 50 (million) to a hundred million people died. That was a flu. OK. So you could say that I said it was a flu, or you could say the flu is nothing to — sneeze at,” he said.

Facts First: Trump was inaccurately portraying his own comments. When he likened the coronavirus to the flu in February and March, he was saying or strongly suggesting that the virus was like a conventional flu — a “regular flu” or “common flu” — not warning Americans that they could be facing something equivalent to the catastrophic flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919.

At a coronavirus briefing on February 26, for example, Trump said, “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” He also said: “The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year.”
As Trump has subsequently noted, the 1918-1919 flu pandemic killed tens of millions of people. Trump clearly was not suggesting in these February 26 comments that the coronavirus would be a devastating pandemic.
Similarly, in a tweet on March 9, Trump said, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” (CNN’s tally on March 9 was 565 confirmed cases.)
Again, Trump was invoking a conventional flu season that killed tens of thousands of people, not a pandemic that killed tens of millions. And until mid-March, Trump also downplayed the virus in comments in which he did not specifically mention the flu.
At a Fox News town hall on March 24, Trump specifically rejected a comparison between the coronavirus pandemic and the 1918-1919 pandemic because of the high mortality rate in that pandemic more than a century ago — a mortality rate he was exaggerating, but nonetheless.

“You can’t compare this to 1918 where close to 100 million people died,” he said.

European travel ban

Trump again exaggerated the travel restrictions he imposed on some European countries in March.

Trump claimed Tuesday that he had “closed it down to Europe” and then that he had “closed it down to all of Europe.”

Facts First: Trump never closed the US to travelers from “all of Europe.” Rather, he imposed restrictions on travel from most European countries but exempted others. And his restrictions did not apply to some people traveling from Europe: US citizens, permanent US residents, certain family members of both citizens and permanent residents and some other groups of travelers.

Trump’s restrictions initially applied to the 26 countries in the Schengen Area, a European zone in which people can move freely across internal borders without being subjected to border checks. Trump later added the United Kingdom and Ireland. That still left out some European countries, including Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine and Russia.

You can read more about the travel restrictions here.

The World Health Organization

During Tuesday’s White House coronavirus task force briefing, Trump claimed that the World Health Organization downplayed the coronavirus and criticized his January 31 order restricting most travel between the United States and China.

“Take a look, I mean go through step by step, they said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem, there’s no nothing, and then ultimately when I closed it down they actually said that I made a mistake in closing it down, and it turned out to be right.”

Facts First: Trump is correct that the World Health Organization organization didn’t support his travel restrictions with China — the WHO opposes most international travel restrictions and sees them as ineffectual — but he overstated the case when he insinuated that the WHO downplayed the virus.

The WHO has been criticized for a January 14 tweet noting that preliminary investigation by Chinese authorities had found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, but the WHO did not say the virus was “no big deal” before Trump announced his travel restrictions. The WHO declared the virus a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, the day before Trump announced the restrictions, out of concern that the virus could pose a threat to other countries beyond China.
On January 30, the WHO said that it did not recommend any travel or trade restrictions, saying that “such measures may have a public health rationale at the beginning of the containment phase of an outbreak” but that they should only be short in duration if over 24 hours because they are not very effective.
As recently as February 29, the WHO reiterated its opposition to blanket travel bans.
The WHO has been criticized for relying on official Chinese government figures relating to the virus, numbers which many officials doubt are accurate. Specifically, the WHO sent out a tweet on January 14 that stated “Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus”.

Trump overstates when he insinuates that the WHO knew about the global threat the virus posed, but downplayed it. The WHO defines an emergency of international concern as “an extraordinary event” that constitutes a “public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and “to potentially require a coordinated international response,” meaning that the organization recognized that the virus posed an international threat beyond China.

On Tuesday, February 4, the organization said that, while the virus had not yet reached pandemic levels, it was considered to be an epidemic with multiple locations; an epidemic being more than a normal number cases of an illness.
On March 11, the WHO declared the virus a pandemic, meaning the worldwide spread of a new disease.

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