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US ready for potential coronavirus outbreak, CDC assures lawmakers

CDC officials said they currently have the resources needed to address the spread of the virus

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., departs from a news conference Tuesday. On Monday Durbin and other Democrats held a press conference to advocate for the NO BAN Act. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., departs from a news conference Tuesday. On Monday Durbin and other Democrats held a press conference to advocate for the NO BAN Act. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Federal health officials told lawmakers Friday that they have the resources they need to address the spread of the virus originating from Wuhan, China, although senators acknowledged the potential need for supplemental funding down the road.

The briefing for roughly two dozen senators came as the case count for the new version of coronavirus in China was rapidly increasing, prompting authorities there to effectively quarantine tens of millions of people in Wuhan and surrounding cities. China’s National Health Commission reported 571 cases and 17 deaths as of Thursday, though news reports on Friday said there were now more than 800 cases and at least 26 deaths.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday said the risk to the general public in the United States was low as they announced a second case here. Still, CDC officials expect the number of U.S. cases to grow since 63 individuals are under investigation as potential cases. So far, 11 of those 63 have tested negative for the virus.

Officials told lawmakers that Chinese authorities seem to be sharing information, and that local officials seemed prepared to handle additional cases that appear in the U.S.

“They did say positive things about China’s response,” Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters.

“We asked it with some skepticism because in the past it wasn’t,” he continued. “In some cases, they didn’t want the bad publicity and they didn’t move as quickly as they should have. This was different.”

While the CDC has been screening travelers from Wuhan coming into the U.S., Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., questioned in a letter whether stricter travel restrictions should be implemented against people coming from the affected areas.

“What I’ve asked today is I’d like to know what the procedures are going to be for State, [Homeland Security] and others to monitor the situation,” he said. “And if we get to a point where Americans are not just warned, but we need to restrict entry, when are we going to know, how are we going to know and what’s the decision process?”

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he would leave the question of implementing travel restrictions to federal health officials.

“That’s up to the professionals,” he told reporters.

Officials briefing the lawmakers were: CDC Director Robert Redfield; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci; Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec; Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary for Science, Space and Health Jonathan Margolis; and Rick Waters, director of the State Department China desk.

Alexander said officials received multiple questions on funding, but that the CDC said existing funds were sufficient for now.

“We’ll make sure they have the money they need to do what they need to do,” said Alexander, who is also an appropriator.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said lawmakers could revisit the issue as the situation develops.

“They seem to be fine,” he told CQ Roll Call. “They may need supplemental funds. I had private discussions on that. But they have priority in their funding for this. This is a priority. They’ll do it. We may have to supplement later to backfill something.”

U.S. involvement

The case announced Friday was a woman from Chicago in her 60s who had returned to the U.S. after traveling from Wuhan on Jan. 13. The first case, confirmed on Tuesday, was a man from the Seattle area in his 30s who had also recently been to Wuhan. In both cases, symptoms didn’t develop until after their return to the U.S.

The virus can take two weeks from the date of infection for a person to show symptoms, officials said. But it appears that the virus does not spread before a person becomes symptomatic.

Health officials from Illinois and Washington state reported that the individuals were in good condition but remained at hospitals for monitoring and to prevent further transmission. Officials said the Chicago woman had limited movement outside of her home, didn’t take public transportation or attend any large gatherings. No illnesses were identified among the contacts of the man from Washington.

A week ago, the CDC announced that it would begin screening passengers traveling from Wuhan at several large airports in the U.S, but since then, China has shut down travel out of Wuhan. The CDC is reconsidering whether the screenings are still needed, though officials could apply them to travelers coming from other Chinese cities. Over 2,000 people were screened in the first week, and while no cases were found, one person was sent for further evaluation.

The CDC’s diagnostic test takes around four to six hours once a sample is received, but for now, the biggest delay to testing is states sending samples to CDC headquarters in Atlanta. The CDC is working to get diagnostic testing equipment shipped to all states, particularly those most at risk.

The National Institutes of Health’s infectious disease division is researching a vaccine, in the hope it may develop one on an aggressive timeline of about three months. Fauci and other NIH researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week that while vaccines for past outbreaks of coronaviruses — like severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2002-2003 — took 20 months between identifying the viral genome and human testing, that process now takes around three months and for the new outbreak, researchers “hope to move even faster.”

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations on Thursday announced three funding agreements with the University of Queensland and two drug manufacturers — Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Moderna — to speed development of a vaccine against the new version of the coronavirus. The university and Inovio are building on their work targeting a similar virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, while Moderna is directly targeting the novel virus in China. CEPI said the organization is shooting to bring a vaccine to clinical trials within four months.

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