US senator under fire for early coronavirus warning to donors

GOP senator also sold as much as $1.5m in stock after receiving classified briefings in the early days of the outbreak.

US Senator Richard Burr
United States Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington [File: Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

United States Senator Richard Burr, a Republican, is drawing fire after a secret recording emerged on Thursday of him warning an insider group of contributors that the coronavirus outbreak in the US would be very serious six days before he first acknowledged it publicly.

In the February 27 recording, obtained and broadcast by National Public Radio, Burr can be heard comparing the coronavirus pandemic to the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed more than 20 million people worldwide.

“There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” Burr said in the recording. “It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

His remarks to a group called the Tar Heel Circle at an exclusive Republican club near the US Capitol came on the same day President Donald Trump was putting a positive spin on US preparedness.

“I think it’s an incredible achievement what our country’s done,” Trump told reporters at the White House that day.

Limiting the number of US cases at the time to 15 was “like a miracle” Trump said, and he suggested the virus “will disappear”.

At the time in late February, Trump had just appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the White House coronavirus task force and had just put in place restrictions on travel from China.

“The comments that have come to light, what Senator Burr was saying to his monied constituents at a donor-class luncheon, are appalling,” said Dr Gavin Yamey, a professor of global health and public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.

“He was not providing other constituents across my state the same warning. He could have used his credibility, his megaphone, his standing to break with the president and tell the country what was coming,” Yamey told Al Jazeera.

“Instead, he put allegiance to Trump before his concern for North Carolinians,” said Yamey. “The administration knew this catastrophe was coming and was asleep at the wheel.”

coronavirus pennsylvania
Healthcare workers direct a car at a COVID-19 temporary testing site near Penn Medicine Radnor in Radnor, Pa. [Matt Slocum/AP Photo]

Burr is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and is one of the lead authors of the key US law providing for federal response to a pandemic.

He and other senators had received a classified briefing from US officials on the coronavirus only two days earlier on February 25.

After that closed-door briefing, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, expressed outrage on Twitter.

“This morning’s classified coronavirus briefing should have been made fully open to the American people -they would be as appalled & astonished as I am by the inadequacy of preparedness & prevention,” Blumenthal said.

It was also reported on Thursday that Burr sold what was described as a significant portion of his US stock holdings during the same period. Citing financial disclosure forms, ProPublica reported that Burr sold between $582,000 and $1.5m worth of stock in 29 separate transactions on February 13.

Members of the Tar Heel Circle group that met with Burr included dozens of invited guests from his home state of North Carolina who collectively had donated more than $100,000 to Burr’s campaigns in the past, according to NPR, which obtained a copy of the RSVP list for the event.

Burr also warned the group’s members against travel to Europe, which has since emerged as the new global hot spot, and suggested public schools may have to close, which has now happened.

“Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they’re making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?” Burr said.

“There will be, I’m sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, ‘Let’s close schools for two weeks. Everybody stay home,’ ” Burr said.

US Congress passes coronavirus aid for families, workers (2:41)

Burr even warned that the US military might be mobilised to combat the coronavirus.

“We’re going to send a military hospital there; it’s going to be in tents and going to be set up on the ground somewhere,” Burr reportedly said at the luncheon.

“It’s going to be a decision the president and DOD [US Department of Defense] make. And we’re going to have medical professionals supplemented by local staff to treat the people that need treatment,” the senator warned.

But Burr said nothing publicly until March 3, when he put out a relatively confident statement after the first case of COVID-19 was identified in North Carolina.

“The US is in a better position than any other nation to handle a public health emergency like coronavirus,” Burr touted.

Scott Huffman, a Democratic candidate for the US House of Representatives, slammed Burr’s handling of the matter.

“I am utterly disappointed at Senator Burr’s warning to a small group of his well-connected donors about the effects of the coronavirus,” Huffman told Al Jazeera.

“This administration and its enablers – to me, for lack of a better word – totally ignored public health and safety,” Huffman said.

Huffman tweeted:

The editorial board of the Raleigh News & Observer, a top newspaper in North Carolina, criticized Burr’s actions as “regrettable but not surprising”.

“Now it appears North Carolina’s senior senator was wary of publicly disputing Trump’s efforts to calm the financial markets by downplaying the coronavirus threat,” the editorial board wrote on Thursday.

A spokeswoman for the senator did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera. A statement given to NPR emphasised Burr’s past track record as an advocate for public health.

Source: Al Jazeera