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As U.S. Reels from COVID-19, Trump Backs Gilead’s Exclusive Patent on Treatment & Suspends EPA Rules

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As the United States leads the world in coronavirus cases, the nation’s healthcare system is already stretched to capacity and protective gear in short supply. President Trump and his health advisors say more than 100,000 Americans could die from the coronavirus in the next two weeks. Meanwhile, millions of people have lost their jobs, and a record 6.6 million unemployment claims were filed this week, on top of last week’s 3.3 million claims. For more on the economic impacts of the coronavirus, and how Trump has responded to the pandemic by rewarding pharmaceutical corporations like Gilead Sciences and indefinitely suspending environmental regulations, we speak with Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The coronavirus pandemic has now spread to more than 200 countries and regions, On Wednesday, the head of the World Health Organization, or WHO, predicted a death toll of epic proportions.

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: Over the past five weeks, we have witnessed a near-exponential growth in the number of new cases, reaching almost every country, territory and area. The number of deaths has more than doubled in the past week. In the next few days, we will reach 1 million confirmed cases and 50,000 deaths.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States has the most coronavirus cases in the world, almost double the next country. Nearly 2,400 people have died here in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — half the national total. More than 1,300 of those deaths were here in New York City. With the nation’s healthcare system already stretched to capacity protective gear in short supply, President Trump and his health advisers say more than 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die from the coronavirus over the next weeks. This is White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx speaking on Tuesday.

DR. DEBORAH BIRX: So, as mortality, the fatalities to this disease, will increase, and then it will come back down, and it will come back down slower than the rate at which it went up. And so, that’s — that is really the issue: how much we can push the mortality down.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as millions of people have lost their jobs. Last week’s unemployment claims saw the largest single-week increase in unemployment claims in American history — times five — with an estimated 3.3 million people filing for benefits. Another 5 million claims are expected to be filed this week.

For more, we’re joined by Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, who’s been following all of this very closely from his home in Washington, D.C., where he’s joining us now, again, from his home, where he can protect himself, his family, and stop community spread.

Rob, I’m so glad to be talking to you, but not under these circumstances. Can you start off by just responding to the president this week, for the first time, admitting the enormity of the crisis that we’re in? The latest news, Lee Fang of The Intercept writing that the U.S. was exporting military equipment as late as March 17th. President Trump now admitting we’re talking about 100,000 to a quarter of a million Americans dead in the next weeks, can you start off by just responding to this and then talking about the so-called stimulus bill that was passed, Nancy Pelosi saying they need a second one, and Mitch McConnell saying there’s no way that’s going to happen? Talk about the state of this country right now.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, thanks, Amy. It is great to be with you, and of course not how we’d like to do it.

You know, when it comes to Trump, we’ve called for him to resign, as a clear and present danger to the public health of the country. You know, we supported his impeachment, but this is a whole different thing. It’s not hard to be a leader in times of crisis. It calls on you to do great things, or even mediocre things. The script is pretty well written for you, but he can’t follow it, because he doesn’t have empathy for other human beings. Everything that happens on the planet, for him, is about him. And as a result, we’ve had disastrous leadership, the utter failure of the government to take leadership in treating this as the wartime emergency that he says it is, you know, to make sure that we produce masks for people who need them — it is not a hard thing to do — to make sure we have ventilators for everyone who needs them. We did not have a proper stockpile, but we should have moved, at a national wartime footing, to move into production to get sufficient ventilators. We were able to do it in World War II, 70 years ago. We’re far more technologically advanced. It’s crazy that it hasn’t happened. And it hasn’t happened because we don’t have national leadership. We don’t have a leader who is able to speak in terms of solidarity and bringing us together, even as we’re isolated, which is exactly what we need right now. And we don’t have a leader who’s able to acknowledge the science and tell the truth. He’s come around in the last few days, and hopefully he’ll stay there, but his months-long failure to acknowledge what’s going on, obviously and clearly, has set the nation on a far more deadly trajectory than it would otherwise be on. So, it’s hard to say enough bad things about how the president has handled this. And it didn’t have to be. This is not about how progressive you are. You just have to be someone who understands what it is to be a leader in times of crisis, do the things that need to be done, and he is utterly incapable of doing that.

Obviously, this has rocked the economy, and it’s going to get worse and go on for we don’t know how long. I think it’s a mistake to only think about the worst-case scenarios, but the worst-case scenarios are certainly very frightening. The Congress has done some extraordinary things and some really pretty bad things in response. This last relief or stimulus bill that was just passed, called the CARES Act, was extraordinary to the extent of its size and the speed with which Congress acted. So, it’s a $2 trillion bill that will actually make available about $6 trillion [inaudible] to the economy. For a first cut, that’s pretty good at scale. It does a lot of good things in terms of getting money out to states, getting moneys out to hospitals and having a very strong unemployment program. So, as people are being thrown off their jobs, they’re going to be able to get — apply for and get unemployment that will give them 100% of what they were making, at least for the next four months.

There’s a lot of bad stuff is in that bill, too. It was pretty clear how it should have been structured. If there was a decision made that we need to keep businesses intact, which I think is a reasonable call, they need financing to get through this time, because we want them to maintain — remain as going concerns, and we want the economy to keep functioning. The number one thing we wanted out of them was to keep people on the payroll, and this program does not require businesses to keep people on the payroll as a condition of receiving government loans. It has some conditions that are included so that companies can’t spend the money they get on dividend payments and stock buybacks; however, it permits the treasury secretary to waive those conditions if he sees fit, and we can’t feel very good about how that’s going to go.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Robert Weissman, as you mentioned, millions of people are unemployed, millions more are expected to lose their jobs. And what is happening, the scale and the scope of these job losses are reportedly unprecedented in U.S. history. And to take just one example of the scale of the loss, the U.S. Travel Association has warned that the U.S. tourism industry will be — the loss to the U.S. tourism industry will be more than $900 billion, which is seven times what it was following 9/11. Meanwhile, many observers are drawing comparisons between what’s likely to happen as a result of this and the Great Depression — not just the Recession of 2008, but the Great Depression. What kind of response do you think could compensate for what millions and millions of Americans are going to suffer in the long term?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Right. Well, there is no parallel to this in terms of the scope and that it’s affecting every single person in the United States and every single person around the world. We are, in fact, shutting down huge portions of the economy. So it’s different than the Great Depression, or even the Great Recession [inaudible] market, or the system’s not working. We’ve got an external problem, and we’re making an intentional, appropriate and necessary decision to shut down economic activity. The only force that can solve that problem is the government.

This first stimulus bill is a partial response. But obviously, when you have a total problem, you really need a total solution, starting with people who are the most vulnerable, have the least possible cushion. So, providing unemployment insurance is great; it doesn’t adequately deal with the problem of all kinds of people who have been outside of the workforce all along but were able to get by one way or another and who are not likely to be able to get unemployment insurance. It doesn’t take care of, you know, the issues you’re raising about prisoners and other super vulnerable segments of society. We’ve got a massive population of immigrants, and especially people who are undocumented, who are going to have a lot of trouble accessing some of the financial supports that are available. And people are going to fall through the cracks.

So we’ve got to get more money out, and we need protections for people to be able to stay in their homes. The bill that passed does a lot for people who are homeowners to help give them some break on mortgage payments. It doesn’t adequately deal with renters, who are obviously generally going to be lower-income than the class of mortgage payers. A lot of localities and states are trying to address the rent problem, but not all of them. So a lot of people are going to be really stuck unless we have much stronger moves forward to protect vulnerable people.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob, I want to ask you about Gilead. Facing mounting pressure from elected officials and dozens of groups, including yours, Public Citizen, Gilead scientists backed down from holding onto the exclusive status the Trump administration granted it for a drug it’s developing to treat COVID-19. Joe Grogan, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, worked as a Gilead Sciences lobbyist from 2011 to 2017. The status would have allowed the corporation to profit exclusively off the drug for seven years and blocked manufacturers from developing generic versions that can be more accessible to patients and control the drug’s price. Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted, quote, “It is truly outrageous that after taxpayers put tens of millions of dollars into developing remdesivir, Trump’s FDA is exploiting a law reserved for rare diseases to privatize a drug to treat a pandemic virus. The Trump Administration must rescind this corporate giveaway to Gilead and make any treatment and vaccine free for everybody.” Again, that was presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ statement. But can you explain what this whole controversy is about, what the role of Trump’s — one of his top advisers, his domestic security adviser, Grogan, is now and was as a Gilead lobbyist?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, this is extraordinary. So, Gilead has one of the possible treatments under study. So this is not a vaccine. The treatment very well may not work, but it’s one of the ones that has the best promise, among a not very good group. So, what Gilead did was it sought protection, what’s called orphan drug status, which is available for rare diseases, for drugs that treat populations of under 200,000. And they submitted their application for this rare disease status when there were fewer than 200,000 identified cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Obviously they knew the population was going to go far higher than that, but they got in under the wire. And the way the law is written, not taking into account a situation like this, if you apply when the population is under 200,000, you get this orphan drug designation, whether or not the population later on goes above 200,000. It was astounding. What you get for orphan drug designation is a seven-year exclusivity, a monopoly that’s separate from and in some ways more powerful than a patent monopoly. So we and others protested that. They quickly backed down, because there’s just no way they were going to be able to get away with that. They still have patents and other monopolies. So, if the drug turns out to be useful, they will have a monopoly, unless we impose more pressure on them or the government takes action to override the monopoly and ensure that other generic producers are able to get the drug on the market in the United States and around the world.

The last element of this, which is so important, and it applies to this product and most of the vaccine efforts that are underway, and Senator Sanders’ tweet points this out, this drug has benefited from a huge amount of government funding on the research and development side. The vaccines have been overwhelmingly researched [inaudible] and its development overwhelmingly provided by U.S. federal government. So, in the case of Gilead, who’s trying to receive this special grant of exclusivity from the U.S. government for a product that the U.S. government had actually paid for most of the R&D on. And we’re facing the same possibility with a vaccine, if we get one anytime soon.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the effect of this drug, not only in this country and around the world, the bigger issue of how countries get access to drugs, and the role of this domestic security adviser, I mean, talking about the revolving door of who gets money and who doesn’t, who gets drugs — in other words, life-and-death issues?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Right. So, in terms of the revolving-door issue, we have — you know, President Trump ran on the idea that he was going to take it to the drug companies, because he was a tough guy. He’s done nothing. But one reason he’s done nothing is he’s got drug company executives and lobbyists running his policy. So he’s got Joe Grogan, as you say, formerly a chief lobbyist for Gilead, running policy on drug pricing out of the White House. And he has a former drug company executive, Alex Azar, running the Department of Health and Human Services. So it’s little surprise these are the kind of policies we’re getting.

When it comes to the vaccines, which are more important than this product from Gilead, which very well may not work — you know, eventually we’re going to get a vaccine that works — the question is going to be: How is it made available? So, is it exclusively controlled by one manufacturer that can charge whatever it wants, or is the government going to say, “No, not only did we pay for this, but this is a public health — an international public health emergency with no parallel. You’ll get some money, but we’re going to make this available to everyone around the world”? Hopefully, no one has to pay for it. But the [inaudible] to the drug company, or companies, from the government will be modified in light of the fact that the government paid for the R&D, and we’re going to require any company that might have monopoly control over it to license that product to other qualified manufacturers around the world, because we’re going have a problem not just with price, but with production. Once we have a vaccine that works, we want it available to everybody around the world right away. And there is no manufacturer who’s got anything like the capacity to be able to do that. So we need lots of producers right away, including, in fact, we need the U.S. government to start scaling up production, to do it at the scale we need for this one-time international emergency.

AMY GOODMAN: Last Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced sweeping and indefinite suspension of environmental rules, telling companies they’ll effectively be allowed to regulate themselves during the coronavirus pandemic. Under the new rules, big polluters will no longer be punished for failing to comply with reporting rules and other requirements. The EPA has set no end date for the policy. Then, on Tuesday, the EPA announced a rollback of an Obama rule that forced auto manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Under the new rules, big polluters will no longer be punished for failing to comply with reporting rules and other requirements. Meanwhile, Trump says he’s invited U.S. oil executives to the White House to discuss how he can help their devastated industry, and protests against pipelines are being further decriminalized [sic] at this time as a threat to national security. Before we wrap up, Rob, if you can address this critical issue, the largest rollback we’ve seen of environmental rules in history?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, just startling. It’s another revolving door story. We have a coal lobbyist who’s running the Environment Protection Agency, and he said, “We’re not going to enforce the rules right now.” It’s framed as a reporting requirement, but effectively means that pollution rules are not going to be enforced, for no good reason. The argument is that people are too busy and stretched to do reporting. Doesn’t really hold up under any kind of scrutiny. And it means that for those producers who are still making stuff, they’re going to be putting a lot more toxic materials into the water and into the air.

Now, a separate thing is this rollback of the clean car standard, which you mentioned. That is the most important climate change initiative that the United States government has ever undertaken, by far. It would both reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, and it would save consumers hundreds of billions of dollars in reduced payments at the pump. The Trump administration has sought from the beginning to roll this back, and they saw fit to do it now under the cover of the COVID crisis. It is an utter disgrace, and it will have very long-lasting implications, unless it itself is undone, which I think it will be, either in the courts or by a next president.

AMY GOODMAN: And at the same time you have the U.N. climate summit being canceled in Glascow, in Scotland, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Right. You know, one thing we’re seeing from this is, of course, this has no parallel, but there are some similarities with what we’re going to deal with with the climate catastrophe that’s coming at us and the need for government to step in. There is no way for private corporations to deal with this crisis right now. They can’t manage the economy. They can’t make planning and management decisions that require some overview of what’s going on. Only the federal government can do that. And it is exactly the same with the climate crisis. And when we come out of this, in fact, when we look at the next stimulus bill, we’re going to have to start talking about thinking not just how we deal with this immediate crisis, but how we — to now, finally, belatedly, take scaled-up action to prevent the climate crisis from hitting us even harder and more devastatingly than this one is.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, joining us from his home to protect against community spread. I hope you’ll bear with the little glitches of sound and video. This is the price that’s paid to get out serious, real, independent information in a time of a pandemic.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the Global South. We will start in India, the largest lockdown of a population in U.S. [sic] history.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Everything’s Ruined” by Fountains of Wayne. The band’s co-founder, Adam Schlesinger, died on Wednesday after a battle with COVID-19. He was 52 years old.

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