Nearly two weeks before the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) had warned a small group of donors about the devastating effects the disease would have on the nation.
Burr's comments were captured in an audio recording obtained by NPR reporter Tim Mak.
"There’s one thing that I can tell you about this," the senator said. "It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history. It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic."
According to NPR, Burr issued the warning during a private luncheon organized the Tar Heel Circle—a bipartisan group of North Carolina companies and organizations that collectively donated over $100,000 to Burr's 2015 and 2016 election campaigns. The comments were reportedly made on Feb. 27, the same day President Donald Trump tried to downplay the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, suggesting it could one day simply "disappear."
"It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear," he said. "And from our shores, you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows. The fact is the greatest experts I’ve spoken to them all, nobody really knows."
At the time of Trump's comments, there were 15 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States. As of Thursday night, there was more than 10,000 confirmed cases and nearly 200 deaths.
As pointed out by NPR, Burr's warnings to Tar Heel Circle members were pretty spot-on.
The senator, who's also the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told attendees they should prepare to alter employees' travel plans, as the coronavirus outbreak could affect international flights: "You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they're making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference," he said. "Why risk it?" About two weeks later, the Trump administration banned all flights coming from Europe.
Burr also predicted that schools would close for weeks, and that the U.S. military would be tasked to assist the fight against the deadly disease.
"We're going to send a military hospital there; it's going to be in tents and going to be set up on the ground somewhere," Burr said. "It's going to be a decision the president and [the Department of Defense] make. And we're going to have medical professionals supplemented by local staff to treat the people that need treatment."
On Wednesday, Trump announced U.S. Navy hospital ships would be deployed on the East and West coasts to provide additional resources. There's also talk of enlisting the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to assist the pandemic response.
Burr's statements have, of course, come under fire, as he did not issue the same warnings in his March 3 statement to his constituents. If the public was aware of his prognosis for the COVID-19 outbreak, it's possible that lives could've been saved.
The senator's spokesperson Caitlin Carroll responded to the audio in a statement to NPR:
Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus. At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort. Every American should take this threat seriously and should follow the latest guidelines from the CDC and state officials.
But the controversy doesn't end there. According to ProPublica, Burr had sold off up to $1.72 million in stock on Feb. 13, as he was reportedly receiving classified information about the coronavirus threat. After reviewing Senate records, the outlet determined the sell-off was Burr's "largest stock selling day of at least the past 14 months." A week after Burr's 33 transactions, the U.S. market collapsed.
His biggest sales included companies that are among the most vulnerable to an economic slowdown. He dumped up to $150,000 worth of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a chain based in the United States that has lost two-thirds of its value. And he sold up to $100,000 of shares of Extended Stay America, an economy hospitality chain. Shares of that company are now worth less than half of what they did at the time Burr sold.
The Daily Beast also reports Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) sold between $1.2 million and $3.1 million worth of stock over the course of several weeks; the first sale reportedly took place on Jan. 24, the same day she attended a closed-door briefing about COVID-19.
The briefing was hosted by Loeffler's Senate Health Committee. The CDC director and the head of the National Institutes of Health of the United States were in attendance.
According to the Daily Beast, the stocks Loeffler sold were jointly owned by her husband.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. and Sen. Dianne Feinstein also sold stocks at around the same time, the New York Times reports.