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Senate Intel Chair Sounded Coronavirus Alarm Weeks Ago In Private Meeting


In late February, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a dire warning about the coronavirus to a private audience. Richard Burr's speech raises questions both about what he knew back then and about whether he was frank with the public. NPR's Washington investigative correspondent Tim Mak got the secret recording.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: On February 27, about three weeks ago, President Trump was saying this about coronavirus.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's going to disappear one day. It's like a miracle. It will disappear. And from our shores, we've - you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We'll see what happens.

MAK: That same day, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr delivered a very different message.


RICHARD BURR: There's one thing that I can tell you about this. It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we've seen in recent history. It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.

MAK: Burr was talking at a luncheon at a members-only social club called the Capitol Hill Club. In attendance were members of the Tar Heel Circle, whose membership consists of businesses and organizations in North Carolina, the state Burr represents. Membership in that group costs between 500- and $10,000. In tape leaked from that event, Burr came with an alarming message.


BURR: As the chairman of the intel committee, there's no message I could come with today that would have been uplifting.

MAK: Burr never shared his assessments publicly. They were heard only by the dozens of invited guests, who represented companies whose PACs and employees donated, in total, six figures to Burr's campaign back in 2015 and 2016. Thirteen days before the State Department began to warn against travel to Europe and 15 days before the Trump administration banned European travelers to the U.S., Burr warned those in the room.


BURR: Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel. 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 in a video conference. Why risk it?

MAK: Sixteen days before North Carolina closed its schools due to the threat of coronavirus, Burr warned it could happen.


BURR: There will be, I'm sure, times that communities - probably some in North Carolina - have a transmission rate where they say, let's close schools for two weeks. Everybody stay home.

MAK: It is only now - three weeks later - that the public is learning in earnest about how the military may be mobilized to combat the coronavirus. But Burr invoked the prospect when talking about how the country might have to surge its medical capacity.


BURR: I can tell you what we're going to do. We're going to send a military hospital there. It's going to be in a tent. It's going to be set up on the ground somewhere. It's going to be a decision the president and the DOD make. And we're going to have medical professionals supplemented with local staff to treat the people that need treatment.

MAK: Burr has spoken about his authoring of legislation which created the modern framework for responding to pandemics. But despite his longtime interest in biohazard threats, his expertise on the subject and his role as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burr did not warn the public. One public health expert told NPR that early warnings from top officials about a coming health crisis could have made a difference just a few weeks ago.


JASON SILVERSTEIN: In the interest of public health, we actually need to involve the public. It's right there in the name. And being transparent, being as clear as possible, is very important.

MAK: That's Jason Silverstein, who lectures at the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.


SILVERSTEIN: The type of language that could have come out there at the end of February saying, here's what we ought to expect, could have, you know, not panicked people but gotten them all together to have to all prepare.

MAK: On Thursday, Senator Burr took to Twitter and called NPR's reporting on the matter a, quote, "tabloid-style hit piece." He also raises cases in which other individuals, not him, warned the public about a possible coming coronavirus health crisis.

Meanwhile, ProPublica released a report Thursday evening showing that Burr had unloaded a substantial amount of stocks in mid-February, before the recent market volatility. Burr sold personal stocks worth between 600- and $28,000 and $1.72 million in 33 separate transactions on a single day - February 13, according to public disclosures. It was, according to ProPublica, the most stock he's sold in a single day in 14 months. Asked by NPR for a comment on the senator's stock sales, Burr's spokesperson Caitlin Carroll replied, LOL.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP'S "BOYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.