Biden's public health advisory committee repeatedly downplayed coronavirus threat

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Joe Biden formed a Public Health Advisory Committee in March, saying that the Trump administration was "unprepared" for the coronavirus pandemic but that the former vice president's hand-picked panel of purported experts would offer more constructive ways to approach the crisis.

The panel, comprised of six doctors and former government officials, provides "science-based, expert advice regarding steps the campaign should take to minimize health risks for the candidate, staff, and supporters,” the Biden campaign has claimed. “The campaign’s top priority is and will continue to be the health and safety of the public.”

Statements reviewed by Fox News, however, show that several members of Biden's advisory committee haven't been consistent on the issue, and in many cases they downplayed the threat of the pandemic -- underscoring how fraught political attacks over the coronavirus can be.

"Joe Biden’s hand selected experts downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, compared it to the flu, said it would go away with warm weather, praised China’s transparency, and opposed President Trump’s travel restrictions on China and Europe," Matt Wolking, the Trump campaign's deputy communications director, told Fox News after this article was published. "There is no evidence Biden thought his own advisors were wrong, which explains why he continued to hold campaign rallies well into March. Now Biden pretends he sounded the alarm, which is just another lie in his decades-long record of dishonesty.”

Dr. Zeke Emanuel

Emanuel is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and vice provost for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. After meeting with the World Health Organization (WHO) in February, he quickly downplayed the threat of coronavirus.

"People recognized that this is a serious public health problem requiring serious attention and that it could become a much more serious health issue," Emanuel said after his return. "But, at the moment, most people are thinking that there may be a bit of an overreaction by many, maybe even our own country. If you look at the numbers dispassionately, there are just over 1,000 cases outside of China. Half of them are on that cruise ship in Japan. So, considering the world's population of more than 7 billion people, that’s not a lot."

He continued: "Even in China, you've got about 74,000 cases. We know that's an underestimate of the actual number of cases, but it’s likely most of the other cases are mild. And that’s in a country with a population of 1.4 billion people. So a sense at the meeting was that we need to be a little more mathematical and rational about this."

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Also in February, Emanuel spoke of his planned international travels.

“Right now I have a trip planned to Taiwan in May, and I’m planning to go," he said. "If there is some big change, like we suddenly see 15,000 cases outside of China, that will certainly change people’s reactions. The other factor here is that many of the experts are saying, well the warm weather is going to come and, just like with the flu, the coronavirus is going to go down and may move into the Southern Hemisphere.”

FILE - In this March 10, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to members of the press at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

FILE - In this March 10, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to members of the press at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Emanuel added that the coronavirus "sort of behaves like the flu," in the sense that "a lot of us get the flu, but serious cases that cause mortality tend to be focused on the elderly and those with other chronic diseases.”

In January, Emanuel admonished Americans, saying in an interview with CNBC: "Everyone in America should take a very big breath, slow down, and stop panicking and being hysterical. We are having a little too much histrionics on this.”

Emanuel also advised Americans against wearing protective masks, saying that "wearing the mask is going to -- not prevent you from getting the virus. It -- the people who need to wear masks are the people who have the virus and since most people, you know, I don't know most people, but there are people who have the virus and don't know it and they're not going to be donning the mask. So, the public, running out and getting a mask is not going to help.”

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In April, Emanuel said Americans could be dealing with strict social distancing measures to combat the coronavirus for 18 months and that the U.S. "will not be able to return to normalcy until we find a vaccine or effective medications."

Dr. Rebecca Katz

Katz, a professor and Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, warned in January that travel bans can "cause public panic" and "impede individual rights."

‘We have learned through past precedent that non-pharmaceutical interventions like ‘social distancing’ -- including keeping people from gathering in confined spaces like a public bus or train -- can be useful in controlling a respiratory disease," Katz said. "But, we know that broadly applied interventions such as travel bans can cause public panic, impede individual rights, lead to secondary effects like shortages of food, and may not be effective at containing a virus if it has already spread outside of the epicenter, as nCoV-2019 has done,’" she added.

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Indeed, within hours of President Trump's decision to restrict travel from China on Jan. 31, other top Democrats and media figures immediately derided the move as unnecessary and xenophobic -- and they are now beating a hasty retreat from that position as the coronavirus continues to ravage the economy and cause scores of deaths.

Biden himself led the way, quickly attacking what he called Trump's "record of hysteria, xenophobia and fear-mongering" after the travel restrictions were announced, and arguing that Trump "is the worst possible person to lead our country through a global health emergency."

Biden eventually praised Trump's travel ban months later. His campaign has said he wasn't calling Trump's ban on travel from China xenophobic.

Lisa Monaco

Monaco served as the former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President Obama. On Feb. 7, she wrote an op-ed downplaying the lethality of coronavirus.

“The good news thus far is that the coronavirus appears to be less lethal than its viral cousin SARS was in 2002 and far less lethal than Ebola was in 2014," Monaco wrote. "The bad news is that today’s virus, as a respiratory illness transmissible through coughing and sneezing, is more easily transmissible than Ebola. And because it may also be transmissible during the incubation period when no symptoms are apparent, the control measures pioneered for Ebola in 2014—funneling travelers to particular airports and then conducting temperature checks for signs of fever and other indicia of infection—may not be as effective.”

Current figures indicate that coronavirus has killed far more people than SARS or Ebola, although its lethality rate appears to be substantially lower. Monaco went on to add that "[p]andemic disease poses one of the greatest threats to global stability and security. In responding to the coronavirus, the U.S. should apply lessons learned from past transnational threats." The Trump administration, she advised, should "lead with the facts and with science, first, last and always."

However, on March 12, speaking to CNN, Monaco sharply criticized the travel restrictions imposed by the Trump administration on China. "It's not the best thing they can do right now to contain this virus," she said.

Lisa Monaco, assistant to the U.S. president for homeland security and counterterrorism, smiles as she talks with journalists at the U.S. - European Media Hub in Brussels on Tuesday May 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Lisa Monaco, assistant to the U.S. president for homeland security and counterterrorism, smiles as she talks with journalists at the U.S. - European Media Hub in Brussels on Tuesday May 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert) (The Associated Press)

Monaco added: "Look, travel restrictions may slow the pace of this spread here, but the reality is that the disease is here. It's already here, and it is expanding exponentially from what we have seen thus far, but we have only looked at the tip of the iceberg. Let's get some facts on the table. Two weeks ago, there were 15 cases in this country. One week ago, there was a little over 100 cases in this country. Today, you're reporting over 1,200 cases. So the exponential increase -- and that's based on just a small level of testing that we have done. So I don't think the travel restrictions are the panacea here, nor is labeling it a foreign virus.”

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In the interview, Monaco explicitly told CNN's Chris Cuomo that Trump's later ban on travel from Europe wasn't the right move, saying, "We've got to be focusing on what we're doing right now, here in this country, to protect Americans."

"Give me a yes/no. The 30-day ban on Europe, right move?" Cuomo asked.

"No," Monaco responded.

Dr. Irvwin Redlener 

Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, downplayed the virus in a February op-ed in The Hill.

“Yes, there is uncertainty, and the headlines are dramatic," he wrote. "But right now, the chances of any of us or anyone we know ever getting a severe, potentially lethal form of the Wuhan virus is negligible.”

References to the "Wuhan virus" have since been called racist by many Democrats and media organizations.

"[T]here is every reason to believe that international collaboration, more sophisticated means of prevention and surveillance, and new, highly effective pharmaceuticals" will avert catastrophe, Redlener wrote.

Redlener's remark that the U.S. was "unprepared" would later be quoted by the Global Times, a Chinese propaganda outfit.

The Biden campaign, including its top coronavirus adviser Ron Klain, has separately praised China for being “transparent” and “candid." Speaking to Axios on January 27, Klain asserted: "I think what you'd have to say about China is, it's been more transparent and more candid than it has been during past outbreaks, though still there's problems with transparency and candor."

Even as he said there were "many" areas in which China hasn't been transparent, Klain asserted that China had helpfully released a "sequence of the virus." Klain went on to say there isn't "any reason" for anyone to postpone essential travel to anywhere except the Wuhan area. In fact, China reportedly destroyed virus samples rather than release them.

On January 28, just three days before Trump closed off most travel from China, Klain said he opposed that measure.

The evidence "suggests" the coronavirus won't be a "serious pandemic," he said Feb. 11.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, left, and White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, attend a meeting about the coronavirus with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, left, and White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, attend a meeting about the coronavirus with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A Fox News timeline shows that Biden's experts were not alone in their assessments -- and that the White House, the media, and prominent Republicans and Democrats have all changed their tune on the coronavirus.

On Feb. 17, for example, top infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who advises Trump's coronavirus task force, announced that the risk of coronavirus infection in the U.S. is "miniscule."

Fauci also told USA Today that people shouldn't wear masks unless they are contagious.

On March 9, Fauci remarked that going to campaign rallies may not be a bad idea: "You know, I can’t comment on campaign rallies. It really depends. We are having as we all said — this is something in motion. This is an evolving thing. So I’m not sure what we’re going to be able to say at the time we’re going to have a campaign rally. If you’re talking about a campaign rally tomorrow, in a place where there is no community spread, I think the judgment to have it might be a good judgment. [But] if you want to talk about large gatherings in a place you have community spread, I think that’s a judgment call, and if someone decides they want to cancel it, I wouldn’t publicly criticize them."