Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a screen shot of testimony to the US Senate in Washington, the US, May 12 2020. Picture: HO/REUTERS
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a screen shot of testimony to the US Senate in Washington, the US, May 12 2020. Picture: HO/REUTERS

Washington  — Leading US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci on Tuesday warned Congress that a premature lifting of lockdowns could lead to additional outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus, which has killed 80,000 Americans and brought the economy to its knees.

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a US Senate panel that the coronavirus pandemic is not yet under control in areas of the nation.

“I think we're going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have by any means total control of this outbreak,” Fauci said during the three-and-a-half hour hearing.

Stocks tumbled after Fauci's warning. Treasuries and the dollar climbed. S&P 500 decreased 2.1% by 4pm in New York.

 Fauci urged states to follow health experts' recommendations to wait for signs, including a declining number of new infections, before reopening.

US President Donald Trump has been encouraging states to end a weeks-long shuttering of major components of their economies. But senators heard a sobering assessment from Fauci, when asked by Democrats about a premature opening of the economy.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control and, in fact paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” Fauci said.

The doctor, who has worked under Republican and Democratic administrations and is a coronavirus adviser to the White House, noted some progress  in the fight against a virus that the medical world is still trying to understand.

He mentioned a slowing in the growth of cases in hotspots such as New York, even as other areas of the country were seeing spikes.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo said at his daily briefing that his state alone needed $61bn in federal stimulus to help reopen its economy. He called on Congress and Trump to support legislation that would address funding gaps, a problem he stressed was dogging Republican and Democratic governors.

“This economy has been damaged through no fault of anyone,” said Cuomo, a Democrat. “But to get this economy back up again and running, we are going to need an intelligent stimulus bill from Washington.”

Some states already have begun reopening their economies and others have announced plans to phase that in beginning in mid-May, even as opinion polls show most Americans are concerned about resuming such operations too soon.

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy said on Tuesday that he intended to announce some tentative moves towards reopening even thought his state, by some measures, is the most serious coronavirus danger zone in the US.

Restrictions in place allow only essential services to operate. Murphy said any changes would be incremental and determined by progress in curbing the spread of the virus.

Cordial

Tuesday's Senate hearing was more cordial than many of Congress's undertakings in recent years, with members of the Senate health, education, labour and pensions committee addressing the non-partisan health experts politely.

Democrats on the committee largely concentrated on the risks of opening the US economy now, while Republicans downplayed that notion, saying a prolonged shutdown could have serious negative impacts on human health and the health of the economy.

Asked whether college students can feel safe if classes resume on campuses in August or September, Fauci said that expecting a treatment or vaccine to be in place by then would be “a bridge too far”.

Instead, schools and students would have to depend on expanded testing for coronavirus, tracing of those who have been in contact with infected people and safe hygiene practices, witnesses said.

The Covid-19 respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus has infected more than 1.3-million Americans and killed more than 80,600.

Fauci, 79, testified remotely as he self-quarantines after he may have come into contact with either of two members of the White House staff who were diagnosed with Covid-19.

Medical researchers have been scrambling to find not only an effective vaccine for coronavirus but also drugs to treat it until a vaccine comes to market.

Fauci noted only “modest” results in tests of Gilead Sciences's remdesivir drug on patients in hospital.

“All roads back to work and back to school run through testing and that what our country has done so far on testing is impressive, but not nearly enough,” Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate committee, told the hearing.

Alexander, who is self-quarantining in his home state of Tennessee for 14 days after a member of his staff tested positive, chaired the hearing virtually.

Trump, who previously made the strength of the economy central to his pitch for his November re-election, has encouraged states to reopen businesses that had been deemed non-essential amid the pandemic.

Reuters