Expert tells US Congress that virus fight could last years

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A top health expert warned US lawmakers Wednesday to brace for a "long and difficult" war against the coronavirus outbreak, as he urged dramatically expanding testing to rein in the pandemic.

Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Obama administration, said the government must prepare better to enable it defeat the virus that has ravaged much of the world.

"Until we have an effective vaccine, unless something unexpected happens, our viral enemy will be with us for many months or years," Frieden told a House health panel, in the first congressional hearing addressing the federal response to the pandemic.

"As bad as this has been so far, we're just at the beginning," added Frieden, who spearheaded the US response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak and heads a global health initiative, Resolve to Save Lives.

The United States has a world-leading 1.2 million confirmed coronavirus infections, and more than 71,500 deaths.

The death toll was on track to top 100,000 by the end of May, particularly if the response is not substantially boosted, warned Frieden, who like lawmakers often wore a mask when he wasn't speaking.

"The bottom line is that our war against COVID-19 will be long and difficult," he said.

Like many states and communities, Congress has slowly begun resuming its work, with new measures in place to accommodate social distancing guidelines.

Two Senate panels were convening coronavirus hearings Wednesday, including one addressing the devastating economic impact on the aviation industry.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Donald Trump's latest federal judge nominee, leading Democrats to complain that Republican leadership was pushing the president's political agenda rather than addressing the coronavirus crisis.

Trump administration officials have yet to publicly testify before Congress about the government's pandemic response.

The nation's top infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci is scheduled to testify before a Senate health committee next Tuesday alongside the CDC's current director, Robert Redfield.

Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus taskforce, was barred from appearing before the Democratic-led House by Trump, who has admitted the move was political.

Rick Bright, an administration vaccine director who says he was ousted for opposing an unproven coronavirus treatment pushed by Trump, is now expected to testify before a House health subcommittee next week.

'Box it in'

House Republican Tom Cole said that while fighting coronavirus was priority one, state "economies need to get moving again."

"Even though the fight against COVID-19 is far from over, keeping businesses closed and workers at home is not a sustainable option," Cole said.

Frieden too acknowledged that Americans are eager to return to normal, with states reopening and allowing businesses to resume operations, but he urged caution.

He advocated a "Box It In" approach to stop transmission including "widespread testing, isolation of cases, contact tracing and quarantine of contacts."

Congress is already negotiating the next phase of federal funding, after it approved an unprecedented $3 trillion to battle coronavirus and help alleviate crushing effects of the economic shutdown.

But debate has raged about which path to take, with Democrats demanding more money for state and local governments, the White House seeking a payroll tax cut and congressional Republicans pushing for corporate liability immunization.

© 2020 AFP

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