Washington, DC – President Donald Trump rejected accusations that his administration is not doing enough to address the coronavirus threat on Wednesday, after days of mixed messages from the White House and federal agencies on the response to the potential spread of the deadly disease in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Tuesday warned Americans to prepare for the possibility of an outbreak of the flu-like virus in the US. But Trump, who was on a two-day trip to India, said the coronavirus was “very well under control in our country.”
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On Monday, his administration called for a $2.5bn to fund the development of a vaccine, gather protective equipment, support for state and local programmes and to set up preparedness.
But US legislators have said the measure falls short, and have called on the White House to appoint a “czar” who could coordinate a national response. Democrats on Wednesday unveiled an $8.5bn request to prepare for an outbreak.
“We will be dealing with this as quickly as possible,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
“One of the problems that we see is people are flying all over the world almost every day, so that it is very difficult to protect yourself from a pandemic that exists either in Africa, or China or in Europe,” Hoyer told reporters at the US Capitol on Wednesday.
The Pentagon told Congress it was reviewing the possibility it may need additional funding to deal with the spread of the virus, hours after the US military reported a soldier in South Korea had become infected.
“It is spreading and we can’t give you a definitive answer on whether we’ll need additional resources or not,” said Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressing a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “We owe you some answers.”
Fourteen cases of the virus have been recorded in the US, according to the CDC. Twelve of those cases were travel-related.
“The immediate risk to the American public remains low, but there is now community transmission in a number of countries, including outside Asia, which is deeply concerning,” Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Alex Azar, who is leading a coronavirus taskforce told a House committee on Wednesday.
“We expect to see more cases here,” Azar said.
Observers say the possibility of a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus in the US poses a political risk to Trump who faces re-election in November. Transportation shutdowns, closures of schools and businesses could hurt public perception of the president’s job performance.
The disease, which originated in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 80,000 people globally. COVID-19, as the illness is officially known, has killed more than 2,700 people in China and dozens of others worldwide.
The spread of the coronavirus also affected global stock markets, which have slumped in recent days due to worries over a prolonged disruption to supply chains and economies.
Trump has been increasingly concerned by the drop in the stock market, which he considers a key barometer of the health of the economy and essential to his re-election prospects.
“It is all about the stock market,” said Jim Manley, a former leadership aide in the US Senate.
“Trump believes, with some justification that if the economy fails or tanks, it is going to be difficult for him to be reelected,” Manley told Al Jazeera. “Which, in turn, is leaving a lot of people puzzled given the real problems that are potentially right around the corner when it comes to the virus itself.”
Trump again pushed back against critics on Wednesday and tweeted that the CDC and Azar are “doing a great job with respect to Coronavirus”.
Just landed. India was great, trip very successful. Heading to the White House. Meetings and calls scheduled today. @CDCgov, @SecAzar and all doing a great job with respect to Coronavirus! Briefing this afternoon.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 26, 2020
He also announced that he will be addressing the issue in a news conference at the White House on Wednesday at 6:30pm (23:30GMT).
Earlier, he criticised some media outlets for their coverage of coronavirus and accused them of “panicking markets”.
Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape! @CDCgov…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 26, 2020
Democrats have blasted the Trump administration for previous budget cuts in programmes designed to provide coordination and planning for a potential pandemic outbreak.
Trump’s newly submitted budget for fiscal year 2021 proposes $10bn in cuts to the HHS budget, about 11 percent of the agency’s total funding. The proposed cuts would include a $700m slash in funding for CDC, one of the lead agencies at the forefront of managing the US response to the coronavirus.
Peter Jay Hotez, professor and dean at the National School of Tropical Medicine, in Houston, Texas, said adequate funding and preparedness at the local level is key to confronting the spread of coronavirus, or any other pandemic in the US.
“The risk is that we will start seeing this virus in a foothold with a significant level of transmission like we are seeing in Italy or Iran,” Hotez told Al Jazeera. “That is the big concern and that is what we need to be ready for.”
“It’s a significant pathogen with a high level of transmissibility and a higher case fatality rate than the flu, so we have to take it very seriously,” he said.
With additional reporting by William Roberts in Washington, DC.