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Trump Signs Aid Package; White House Coronavirus Briefing, March 19, 2020

A medical professional takes samples from person at a drive-through coronavirus testing lab set up at Somerville Hospital in Somerville, Mass., on Wednesday. [Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images]
A medical professional takes samples from person at a drive-through coronavirus testing lab set up at Somerville Hospital in Somerville, Mass., on Wednesday.

Watch the latest updates on the coronavirus pandemic from the White House, Thursday, March 19 at 11:00 a.m. President Trump is expected to discuss steps the Food and Drug Administration is taking in response to the coronavirus crisis.

By Philip Ewing and Franco Ordoñez, NPR

The Food and Drug Administration is trying to clear the way to expand the types of medicines or treatments available during the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump said on Thursday.

Early trials have begun for a prospective coronavirus vaccine and the FDA also is working to permit patients to have access to medicines approved for use in other countries or for other uses.

Trump endorses broad spending

Trump also said at a White House press conference on Thursday that he'd support the prospect of the government taking an equity stake in companies as part of a big stimulus for the economy.

The particulars are being negotiated in Congress as part of another bill that could lead to hundreds of billions or $1 trillion in cash or other support for individual Americans, small business and big companies.

Trump's answer on Thursday suggested that he'd be open to a situation in which the government might buy a percentage of the stock of a big company in order to provide it with equity to continue operating through the economic shock associated with the pandemic.

Trump said the amount of spending would depend on the virus.

If social distancing and the clinical response could stop the coronavirus "in its tracks," about $1 trillion would be "plenty," the president said. If that won't do, that might more require more negotiations.

FDA fast track

FDA officials want to expand the treatments available during the pandemic in a way that's both fast and responsible, Trump said, so that authorities can monitor what works as soon as practical.

"Immediately — like, as fast as we can get it," the president said.

Trump said the measures he announced on Thursday could be a "game-changer," but "maybe not."

Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the FDA, said he wanted to assure Americans that the agency would go as fast as it could to broaden access to new medicines and treatment but that it remained bound by its mission to ensure that those products would be safe.

"We are looking at everything that's coming across our desks as treatment options for coronavirus," Hahn said. "We need to make sure this sea of treatments will get the right drug to the right patient at the right dosage at the right time."

One first step in the short term, Hahn said, is to examine medications already in use for other purpose.

Doctors will look at an anti-malaria drug, for example, to see how it might be applied to coronavirus sufferers, he said. Another option might be to take blood from patients who've recovered from a coronavirus infection and inject it into sick patients to help their immune response.

Hahn said the FDA's work would be a "continuous process" and might take three to six months. A vaccine might not be complete for about another year.

Overall, it was not clear on Thursday that beyond officials' emphasis on doing lots of assessments quickly, when the work that has begun would begin to pay off at significant scale.

"This is an unprecedented situation," Hahn said. "This is a really significant time "

More testing

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus coordinator, told reporters in a press conference with Trump and Hahn that she recognized the number of coronavirus cases in the United States would likely continue to rise as more tests become available and it takes less time to process them.

The number of infections is nearing 10,000, according to the latest reports.

Birx observed that the rate of positive results is between 10 and 11 percent, which said means that about 90 percent of people receiving tests don't have the coronavirus.

Even so a more robust testing regime likely will reveal more cases, officials said.

Conference with governors

Trump was set to speak with governors on Thursday from the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as states work out what they need to be able to care for what is expected to be a wave of people needing treatment for the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

FEMA is accustomed to responding when natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes overwhelm local resources, but the scope and scale of the coronavirus pandemic presents  huge logistical challenges.

Trump is under pressure to show that his administration has the situation in hand as Americans have seen their day-to-day lives dramatically changed.

Schools are closed, people are heeding warnings to stay away from others, and many have lost their income as the economy is shocked into a stop.

As of Thursday morning,more than 9,000 people have been confirmed with the virus in the United States, and 150 people have died.

Meanwhile, Trump's administration is negotiating with Congress on a new package of aid to help people and businesses through the huge economic losses from the crisis. It will be the third round of aid in two months. Trump signed the second package into law Wednesday night.

But the virus is making it hard for lawmakers to do their work. On Wednesday evening,  two congressmen said they had tested positive for the virus, and others who had met with them — including Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in the House — said they would self-quarantine, to be safe.

No decision on Olympics, Trump says

Trump acknowledged that Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed the upcoming Summer Olympics in a call with world leaders earlier this week. Abe hasn't decide whether to cancel the games, Trump said, but "we'd live with his decision if he does."

Trump was asked on Thursday when he thought life would get back to normal.

"I hope very soon," he said. "We'll see. This is uncharted territory."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.