A coronavirus outbreak at the White House continued to spread through the country’s senior leadership this week, amid uncertainty about President Donald J. Trump’s own battle with the illness.
Trump announced a positive test result for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the early morning of Oct. 2, just hours after declaring in a virtual address that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.” He spent the weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, with symptoms including a high fever and low oxygen. Physicians put him on two experimental treatments — the antiviral drug remdesivir and an antibody cocktail from drugmaker Regeneron — along with the steroid dexamethasone, which is typically reserved for severe cases.
While Trump returned to the White House on Monday, seemingly on the mend and comparing Covid-19 to the flu, experts cautioned that the president may not yet be clear of the disease’s worst effects. After a televised White House event that evening, medical experts noted the president appeared to have difficulty breathing. On Thursday, however, Trump’s medical team declared that his illness is no longer progressing and that they anticipate his return to campaigning on Saturday.
Across the U.S., more than 7.6 million people have been infected with the coronavirus and more than 212,000 have died, with the virus disproportionately affecting people of color. According to a government memo obtained by ABC News, at least 34 people connected to the White House have now tested positive, including press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and senior aide Stephen Miller. One security official, according to Bloomberg, is now “gravely ill.”
The outbreak emptied the West Wing and raised fears of national security vulnerabilities. It also highlighted how the administration’s own Covid-19 protocols have differed markedly from the recommendations the White House, or in some cases federal public health agencies, make for ordinary Americans.
Indeed, at a time when administration officials were struggling to implement a national testing program and questioning whether asymptomatic people should have access, White House staff were able to receive daily, rapid coronavirus testing. (The technology does not catch all Covid-19 cases, and, as the ongoing outbreak may demonstrate, is intended for use alongside other protective measures.) And even as federal public health guidance urged Americans to wear simple protective masks, White House staff largely neglected their use. Instead, some administration officials, along with the president, ridiculed people for wearing them.
On Tuesday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, hosted a 70-person wedding for his daughter in Atlanta in May — despite an order from the state’s Republican governor banning gatherings of more than 10 people. Attendees at the Meadows wedding “donned tuxedos and ball gowns for the indoor affair,” the newspaper reported, “but not masks.”
Even once Covid-19 reached the White House last week, the private behavior of the country’s leader seemed to diverge from the message he shares with the public. For months, Trump has boosted the drug hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for Covid-19, despite scant evidence. But when Trump’s doctors shared details of his drug regimen this week, hydroxychloroquine was absent from the list. There was no indication that, once infected, the president actually took the supposed cure he had been touting to his own supporters for months.
Also in the News:
• Amid a global pandemic and long-running debates over whether the prestigious prizes are even a worthwhile endeavor, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced a new set of Nobel Prizes this week. On Monday, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to a trio of men for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus: Harvey J. Alter of the National Institutes of Health, Michael Houghton of the University of Alberta, and Charles M. Rice of The Rockefeller University in New York. The discovery of the virus led to therapies that have reportedly saved millions of lives. The physics prize, announced Tuesday, went to Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford, Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics for discoveries related to black holes. And on Wednesday, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to two women for arguably the most talked-about scientific discovery in recent memory, the gene-editing tool Crispr: Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. Crispr allows for a relatively cheap and easy way to alter the genetic makeup of virtually any organism, with broad applications across medicine and agriculture. In recent years, scientists including Doudna and Charpentier have fought over the patent rights and credit for the discovery. With the economics prize still pending, the 2020 results bring the tally of women with science or economics Nobel Prizes — long criticized for a lack of diversity — to 24 out of more than 600. (NPR, Science, The New York Times)
• A study published Monday in the journal Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology documents widespread neurological symptoms in Covid-19 patients who require hospitalization. The researchers, surveying data from 509 patients hospitalized in Chicago this spring, found that 82 percent experienced at least some neurological symptoms. Common milder symptoms included headaches and muscle pain. But around one-third of the study’s patients appeared to experience actual changes in brain function while ill, including confusion, short-term memory problems, difficulty concentrating, stupor, and even comas. The researchers also report that former admitted patients might continue to suffer neurologically long after they have recovered from the virus. The study adds to a growing body of research on how Covid-19 can affect the brain. (NBC News)
• It’s a really tough time to be on the academic job market, reports Science magazine’s Katie Langin, who analyzed postings on the publisher’s Science Careers job board and found that advertisements for U.S.-based faculty positions in science, technology, engineering, and math are down 70 percent compared with last year. Postings on science-specific job lists unaffiliated with Science magazine are down by similar margins, Langin reported. As universities reeled from the Covid-19 lockdowns last spring and many schools instituted hiring freezes, the job market was expected to suffer. But Andrew Spaeth, co-creator of an online chemistry job list, told Science “it’s about double-worse than I imagined.” Experts say the market glut could force many postdoctoral researchers to remain in their positions for longer than they’d planned. But, speaking to Science, Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan worried that this would have an undesirable knock-on effect for soon-to-graduate Ph.D. students. “We really need to think about how to provide some kind of lifeline … and not lose a group of people that we put a lot of resources into training,” she said. (Science)
• The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed this week that prominent Russian anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny was poisoned in August by a chemical compound with a similar structure to Novichok nerve agents. The finding echoes earlier reports by scientists from Germany, Sweden, and France, and it bolsters allegations that the Russian government ordered the poisoning of Navalny, a leading opposition figure to Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. The neurotoxic Novichok agents were developed in the 1970s and ‘80s in the Soviet Union. Russia insists its stock had been destroyed by 2017, but Novichok was implicated in the 2018 poisoning of a former Russian military officer turned British spy. In that case, the U.K. implicated Russia in the attack. Two dozen countries, including the U.S., expelled scores of Russian diplomatic officials, and Novichok was subsequently banned under a chemical weapons treaty. This second incident began in August, when Navalny was airlifted to Germany for treatment after collapsing on a plane flight in Russia. Tests run while he was in the hospital identified the presence of the nerve agent. Russian authorities have denied any role in the poisoning, but German officials have already indicated they will be meeting with other members of the European Union to discuss possible punishment against Russian for the treaty violations. (The New York Times)
• The New England Journal of Medicine — one of the country’s most prestigious scientific journals — published an editorial on Wednesday denouncing the Trump administration’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. While the editorial does not explicitly endorse a presidential candidate, it calls current political leaders “dangerously incompetent,” and calls on citizens not to “abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.” According to the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 Dashboard, relative to total population, Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. are double that of Canada and roughly 50 times that of Japan. While NEJM has never issued an editorial about elections before, its editor-in-chief, Eric Rubin, told CNN that the issues at hand concerning the pandemic are “around fact, not around opinion.” Mask wearing, social distancing, and quarantine and isolation have all been scientifically proven to slow the spread of the coronavirus, he said, adding that “trying to suggest that they’re not real is imaginary and dangerous.” (CNN)
• And finally: Sympathy for the devil? After a 3,000-year absence, Tasmanian devils are back on the Australian mainland. The carnivorous marsupials — iconic for their vigorous feasting, and as the inspiration for the whirling Looney Tunes character — were depleted from the mainland, scientists have theorized, by factors including competition from non-native predators like dingoes. But the animals thrived on the nearby island state of Tasmania until the species was hit in the 1990s with a contagious mouth cancer, dropping their wild population to 25,000 and earning them an “endangered” designation on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. But thanks to the efforts of a trio of conservation organizations, a cancer-free population was established in Tasmania, and, this year, 26 of the predators were introduced into a massive fenced-off wildlife sanctuary in eastern Australia. Wildlife experts hope the devils will restore local ecosystems by challenging invasive species like foxes and feral cats, protecting smaller native mammals, and eating dead animals. “I really believe that over time, we’ll see the devil become a normal part of mainland Australia,” Tim Faulkner, president of AussieArk, one of the organizations behind the effort, told National Geographic. “It was here 3,000 years ago. You know, that’s an ecological blink of an eye.” (National Geographic)
“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.