Speeches & Floor Statements

Coronavirus Hearing Opening Statement

Posted on March 3, 2020

Around the world, the spread of the coronavirus is alarming, with nearly 90,000 cases in 65 countries and 3,000 deaths, as of yesterday morning, according to the World Health Organization.

But most people in the United States are at low-risk.

Here is what the New York Times said on their front page on Sunday:

“Much about the coronavirus remains unclear, and it is far from certain that the outbreak will reach severe proportions in the United States or affect many regions at once. With its top-notch scientists, modern hospitals and sprawling public health infrastructure, most experts agree, the United States is among the countries best prepared to prevent or manage such an epidemic.”

Today, there are reports of over 100 cases, and there have been six deaths, in the United States.

And in addition to the human suffering the virus is causing, it is disrupting the global economy.

According to the United States Trade Representative, more than 20 percent of everything we import is made in China – medicines, car parts, cell phones, televisions, washing machines.

China has shut down factories and locked down 16 cities where an estimated 760 million people live.

In the short-term this could disrupt American companies’ ability to buy and transport goods and materials.

In the long-term, the production of these goods could shift, which could affect jobs and prices.

The goal of this hearing is to provide the American people with accurate information on the coronavirus that they can rely on in their in everyday life. 

Today’s witnesses are four experts who have a lot of experience and know what they are doing. 

First, we have Dr. Anne Schuchat, who is the Principal Deputy Director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She started at CDC more than 30 years ago, at the Epidemic Intelligence Service. Since then, she has served under both Democrat and Republican Administrations, playing a key role in the response to public health emergencies including the 2001 anthrax attack, the 2003 SARS outbreak, and the 2009 flu pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci serves as the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – a position he has held since 1984 under Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now President Trump. He led the agency’s NIH’s response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s and 1990’s and to the emergence of the West Nile virus in the United States in 1999, SARS in 2003, and the two Ebola outbreaks in Africa in 2014 and 2018. 

Third, 14 years ago, led by Senator Burr, Congress created the position of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), held today by Dr. Robert Kadlec. Dr. Kadlec worked for Senator Burr and helped draft the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act in 2006. Earlier in his career, he spent more than 20 years in the United States Air Force, where he advised the Secretary of Defense on biological threats. Dr. Kadlec assisted the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the 2001 anthrax attacks, and advised President Bush on infectious diseases and bioterrorism.

And finally, Dr. Stephen Hahn, who is the Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the newest person of those here today, but comes from an impressive background.  He has served as Chief Medical Executive at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, a large organization with 21,000 employees, and before that as a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute at NIH.

The reason I go through all of that is because Tennesseans and the American people want to know the truth and these are four people who have the experience to provide the answers.

In addition to getting accurate information, Congress wants to understand exactly what the federal government may need to do to limit the impact of the coronavirus in the United States.

But before we talk about what else we need to do, I want to talk about what we have already done.

Let’s start with Congress. 

The coronavirus is not the first public health threat Americans have faced over the last 20 years – there are some Senators and staff members who remember the 2001 anthrax attack here at the Capitol; in 2003 we saw SARS, another coronavirus similar to the one we are seeing today; the 2009 flu pandemic killed an estimated 151,000-575,000 people worldwide; and in 2014 and 2018 there were outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus.

Following the anthrax attacks during the Bush Administration, Congress created Project BioShield in 2004 to help develop and stockpile new treatments and vaccines. 

In 2006, after the SARS outbreak and also during the Bush Administration, Congress passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act – PAHPA.

This legislation created the system that guides how the federal government prepares for and responds to public health emergencies.

For example in PAHPA, Congress gave the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to prioritize funding for the development of vaccines and treatment for infectious diseases, and improved the Public Health Emergency Fund to ensure those on the frontlines have quicker access to the money they need.

The Senate passed the most recent update to PAHPA last May by unanimous consent, led by Senator Burr, who authored the original legislation, and Senator Casey.

Every year, Senator Blunt and Senator Murray, as the leaders of the Senate appropriations subcommittee, funds public health preparedness programs well.

We all know that presidents’ budgets often propose unrealistic cuts.

Last year, Congress provided more than $4.5 billion for public health and preparedness programs at Health and Human Services, including for the office of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, CDC, and the National Institutes of Health.

When a crisis occurs, money is often needed quickly, which is why Congress created the Public Health Emergency Fund and the Infectious Disease Rapid Response Reserve Fund.

Secretary Azar has already used $105 million from the Rapid Response fund, and, using authority Congress has given him, transferred $136 million from other HHS programs, to respond to the coronavirus.

Sometimes when these crises unexpectedly occur, we need more money.

Last Monday, the Trump Administration requested an additional $2.5 billion, and we expect this week to vote on additional funding to help fight the coronavirus. 

In addition to what Congress has done, previous Administrations have used their executive authority during public health emergencies.

For example, President Obama deployed the military to West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

And President George W. Bush sent CDC scientists and researchers to around the world to help countries investigate and respond to the SARS epidemic.

The Trump Administration is taking similar actions to respond.

First, on January 29, the Administration announced a coronavirus task force to coordinate the government’s response.

Last week, President Trump put Vice President Pence in charge – putting a vice president who was once a governor in charge of an effort that depends on federal, state and local cooperation makes sense as a way to continue to keep Americans safe. 

The Vice President has moved Ambassador Deborah Birx from the State Department to his office to assist in the response. Ambassador Birx is currently the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, a position she was nominated to by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2014. She has been responding to infectious diseases while serving at the Department of Defense, CDC, and State Department since 1985.

Second, on January 31, at a time when there were only six confirmed cases in the United States, the Administration, for the first time in 50 years, announced they would quarantine Americans who may have been exposed to the virus while in China, and impose travel restrictions on foreign nationals who have traveled to China in the last 14 days.

This means the State Department has transported Americans back to the United States where they are quarantined and monitored for 14 days at federal facilities.

If someone tests positive for the coronavirus, they are transferred to a health care facility to be treated.

Americans returning to the U.S. from China are being screened by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Customs and Border Protection when arriving at certain airports and monitored by public health officials for up to 14 days.

At the same time, the State Department warned Americans not to travel to China, and the CDC recommends Americans reconsider cruises in Asia.

The State Department on February 29 also recommended Americans reconsider traveling to parts of Italy and South Korea.

Under the authority of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Administration said foreign nationals who have traveled to China in the last 14 days cannot enter the United States. On Saturday, the president updated this to include travelers from Iran.

Dr. Fauci has said if we had not taken these steps, we would have had many more cases right now. 

Third, the CDC has developed a test to diagnose the coronavirus, which FDA authorized on February 4, and that has been made available to 46 labs in 38 states and Washington, D.C.

On February 29, FDA authorized a new test developed in New York. FDA is continuing to work with 65 other private sector test developers, including academic medical centers and commercial labs, to increase the availability of coronavirus tests.

Fourth, Dr. Fauci has said we’re developing a vaccine for the coronavirus more quickly than ever before and President Trump met yesterday with drug manufacturers to see if vaccines and other treatments would be available more rapidly.

And fifth, scientists at Oak Ridge, Argonne, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories are conducting research using the extraordinary computing and imaging capabilities to understand and respond to the coronavirus, which could speed up the development of treatments and vaccines. 

An additional concern is the impact on the global economy.

According to the United States Trade Representative, more than 20 percent of the goods we import are made in China, and so when a manufacturing plant is shut down because of an outbreak, it could impact the manufacturing supply chain for many items American use in their daily lives.

For example, the FDA estimates that about 13 percent of the facilities that make active ingredients for drugs are in China. 

Some people have said that 80 percent of the ingredients for drugs are produced in China. This statistic appears to originate from a 1998 report by the Government Accountability Office with no source and something we need to evaluate carefully before relying on it.

I have discussed with other senators the need to look into what exactly the impact is on our country of having so many of our medicines and medical supplies made overseas.

It’s not just medicines that are affected.

Eastman, based in Kingsport, Tennessee, has nine manufacturing plants in China that produce chemicals necessary to make tires and windshields.

Last month, Mark Costa, the CEO of Eastman, said that with the Phase 1 China Trade deal in place, orders were up, but the coronavirus has erased those increases.

Mr. Costa said another issue is logistics – quarantines impact the availability of trucks to ship every product made in China, such as cell phones and car parts.

Short-term, things like medicines, televisions, and washing machines could be impacted.

Long-term, more American companies’ could manufacture goods in the United States.

That may mean more jobs but it also would likely mean higher prices.

Today’s hearing is an opportunity to listen carefully to our four witnesses who have decades of experience and are the right people to give the American people accurate information about the coronavirus – both what individuals can do and what the federal government is doing to respond.

We are going to finish by noon today, so Dr. Schuchat and Dr. Fauci can join the Vice President in briefing senators at our lunches.