Burr Warned Of Coronavirus Threat In Private But Publicly Avoided Angering Trump

Screengrab/PBS NewsHour/YouTube


Sen. Richard Burr told a private group of business leaders that the coronavirus was "akin" to the 1918 flu pandemic.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) reportedly expressed dire concern over the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. in private remarks to a small group of constituents weeks before the Trump administration sounded the alarm for the general public.

In a recording taken on February 27 and obtained by NPR’s Tim Mak, Burr is heard saying that the coronavirus would likely play out like the 1918 flu pandemic, which infected more than 500 million people around the world. The Republican lawmaker's comments were far more stark than any remarks he was making publicly about the virus at the time.

“There’s one thing I can tell you about this,” Burr said during a luncheon with for the Tar Heel Circle, a group whose members come from businesses and organizations in North Carolina. “It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history. It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

Mak reported that membership in the group Burr was addressing costs between $500 and $10,000, and the recording was taken by someone in attendance who became alarmed by the senator’s warning.

Other warnings Burr offered the group included disruptive measures that would likely be taken in an effort to thwart the virus’ spread — many of which have now come to pass, Mak noted.

“Thirteen days before the State Department began to warn against travel to Europe, and 15 days before the Trump administration banned European travelers from the U.S., Burr warned those in that room to reconsider,” Mak said.

The senator told the group that companies may have to considering altering employees’ travel plans and “judge whether the trip they’re making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?”

Burr also warned that school closures could take place, a full 16 days before North Carolina shut down its school system, and acknowledged that the U.S. military might be employed to combat the coronavirus and increase medical capacity in response to surging cases of Covid-19. The American public learned of these measures only as they were happening, weeks after Burr warned the Tar Heel Circle of these steps as very real possibilities.

Mak noted that Burr was not providing similar warnings to the general public around the time of his meeting with the business group. “Burr was providing a stark assessment about coronavirus to a small audience of constituents, which as an elected official, he never told the general public about,” he said. “This story raises questions about whether Burr was truly frank with the public about how bad the coming weeks might be.”

On the same day, President Donald Trump was publicly downplaying the outbreak, telling Americans: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear. And from our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better, it could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens.”

As for Burr, who was a key author of legislative framework on how the U.S. handles pandemics and has decades of work on biohazards as a lawmaker, he did not speak out about his assessment of the coronavirus situation — despite the Trump administration’s efforts to minimize its potential impact.

“It’s hard to know whether had he done so, anything would have been different,” Mak said. “But according to a public health expert I spoke to, warning the public about the extreme measures that may have been coming down the line could have allowed people more time to prepare.

Listen to the recording and full interview here.


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