Coronavirus Update: Cruise Ships Are Sitting Empty At U.S. Ports
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A federal scientist who was focused on vaccine development has filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. Rick Bright says he was demoted because he was reluctant to promote the use of drugs like hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients.
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RICK BRIGHT: Time after time, I was pressured to ignore or dismiss expert and scientific recommendations and, instead, to award lucrative contracts based on political connections.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And at ports around the country, cruise ships are sitting empty thanks to a 100-day no-sail order imposed by the CDC. Carnival, the world's largest cruise line, plans to get back to business in August. But the coronavirus pandemic has left the cruise industry in a difficult situation, and at least one company is warning it might not survive.
CHANG: To talk more about all this, we're joined now by NPR's Miami correspondent Greg Allen and NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hello.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi.
CHANG: All right. Let's start with the whistleblower complaint. Rick Bright had already publicly claimed he was reassigned against his will. This complaint, it does add more details to that. Selena, what new information have we learned here?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So Rick Bright had been working as the director of BARDA, which is the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Last month, he says, he was moved to the National Institutes of Health in retaliation. So this complaint filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is 90 pages long. It's extremely...
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...Detailed, and it describes how Bright warned the Trump administration about the seriousness of the pandemic during a January meeting and foresaw shortages of masks and swabs. But he says he was brushed off. It also describes how he pushed back against the Trump administration's promotion of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as treatments for COVID-19. He said these were unproven treatments, and his supervisors pressured him to promote them anyway. And you'll remember these drugs were mentioned frequently by the president himself in his press briefings for a time.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The lawyers held a teleconference for reporters with Bright today, and here is some of what he said.
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BRIGHT: Their eagerness to push blindly forward without sufficient data to put these drugs into the hands of Americans was alarming to me and my fellow scientists.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Overall, the complaint describes how higher-ups in the administration pushed Bright to put what he calls cronyism over science and how his resistance ultimately cost him his job. I reached out to HHS, Health and Human Services - the agency that oversees BARDA - and the NIH for comment. And a spokeswoman wrote back, in part, quote, "Dr. Bright was transferred to NIH to work on diagnostic testing critical to combating COVID-19." And the statement continued, "we are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor."
CHANG: And it seems the story - it's prompted rumors of a Cabinet shakeup at the White House, I understand.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes. Multiple news outlets reported last month that the president was considering firing Alex Azar - that is the secretary of Health and Human Services - in part because Azar presented Bright's move to the NIH to the coronavirus task force as a promotion. So the White House felt blindsided when Bright began to portray it publicly as retaliation. Azar has not gone anywhere yet, but this news might add fuel to that fire.
CHANG: All right, Greg. Let's bring you in now. You have been following the story about cruise ships that we mentioned earlier. I mean, just weeks ago, we were hearing about severe outbreaks on these ships, where dozens of people had died and hundreds were infected. I mean, is it really possible that Carnival could resume cruises in August?
ALLEN: Well, Ailsa, I'd say it's theoretically possible at this point. Right now there's a no-sail order that's in effect that was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It goes to July 24, or in the words of the order, it says, or when the secretary of Health and Human Services declares that COVID-19 no longer constitutes a public health emergency. So Carnival says that it will do it if it gets the OK from authorities. It would start with just eight ships sailing from ports in Florida and Texas at first and then, at some point, ramp up. The company says it plans to take a measured approach, though, and will consult with, quote, "experts, government officials and the stakeholders on how to safeguard the health of its guests."
But like we've been saying, this is all dependent on the company getting approval from the CDC. The CDC says it's reviewing cruise lines' plans to respond to COVID-19. But in a statement, the agency says, quote, "at this point in time, we do not have enough information to say when it will be safe for cruise ships to resume sailing." So we'll have to wait and see on that.
CHANG: OK. Well, setting aside the question of whether people will even want to go on a cruise with a pandemic going on still, I mean, I can understand that companies want to start back up again. They must be losing - what? - millions of dollars every day.
ALLEN: Right. A Wall Street analyst recently estimated that the largest cruise line, Carnival, is losing $500 million a month while its ships sit idle. And just today, Norwegian, which is the third largest cruise line, warned that it may not survive the pandemic. It had a filing with regulators, and it said that it's not sure if it's going to have enough money to meet all of its financial obligations this year. The company says the pandemic, quote, "has raised substantial doubt about the company's ability to continue." Norwegian says after the travel restrictions are lifted, though, demand for cruises will still remain weak, which might cause long-term problems for the industry and for the company itself.
CHANG: I mean, one problem is cruise lines don't qualify for federal aid because they're incorporated in other countries. But I understand that Carnival did get help from the federal government. So what happened there?
ALLEN: Right. What's very interesting here is that in March, the Federal Reserve took an unprecedented step by pumping billions of dollars into private credit markets that allowed companies like Carnival to raise badly needed funds. At that time, Carnival secured at least $6 billion in the bond markets at favorable rates, and that's money that they can use to tide it over till it resumes sailing. That led to some criticism from people who called it a bailout. One of those people was Sen. Bernie Sanders. But the company says, no, not a bailout. It was just getting credit on - that it needed.
CHANG: And I understand Congress is now investigating Carnival. What questions are they trying to answer there?
ALLEN: Right. That's not about the financial help. This is about what Carnival knew about the coronavirus when it allowed passengers to get on its ships. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure wants to know why Carnival didn't act sooner to protect the health of passengers and staff.
Some of the questions involved the Diamond Princess, which, you'll recall, was hit by a COVID-19 outbreak and was quarantined in Japan in early February. A month later, the company had major outbreaks and deaths from COVID-19 on two other ships, the Ruby Princess and the Grand Princess. And there have been numerous lawsuits filed about - against Carnival about both those cruises. The House committee says when travel restrictions are lifted eventually, it wants assurances that Carnival and the cruise line industry as a whole are taking steps to ensure the safety of passengers and crew. So we'll see how that investigation goes.
CHANG: OK. Back to you, Selena, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters today that the White House is planning to wrap up the coronavirus task force. Now, this is a task force that Pence will continue to run until around Memorial Day. What does this announcement tell us about how the White House is seeing things that they're going to wrap up pretty soon?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. Many of us know the task force from the daily briefings. They've kind of become a fixture for people who are stuck at home. These briefings sometimes stretch on for hours. The president would often clash with the press, and there was sometimes misinformation about possible treatments and the real availability of testing around the country. But in any case, the task force itself has served as a way for agencies across government to work on a coordinated response to the coronavirus.
And today Pence told reporters that this organizational structure will be less necessary by the fall, and federal agencies can move to, quote, "begin to manage our national response in a more traditional manner," meaning kind of in silos, I guess. But it is not clear how much the country will have the epidemic under control in the fall. There is concern about a second wave, and this first wave we are currently in seems to be plateauing at more than 20,000 new cases a day. So it does seem somewhat in Congress to talk about wrapping up the federal task force even a few months from now.
CHANG: All right. That is NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin and Miami correspondent Greg Allen.
Thanks to both of you.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.