AP Photo/Alex Brandon Richard Burr
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Sen. Richard Burr compared the current coronavirus outbreak to the Spanish Flu in 1918, which killed as many as 50 million people.

The Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee was privately warning a group of business leaders that the new coronavirus could be as disruptive as the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic — even as Donald Trump was downplaying the outbreak to the public.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) made the warning three weeks ago at a private lunch on Capitol Hill with business leaders from his state, according to a recording obtained by NPR.

“There’s one thing that I can tell you about this,” Burr said at the lunch, according to NPR’s recording. “It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we’ve ever seen in recent history. It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

The 1918 flu pandemic, known to many as the Spanish Flu, infected as many as 500 million people globally, and killed as many as 50 million people.

Burr went on to tell the business leaders — who according to NPR were part of an association that costs between $500 and $10,000 to join — that travel to Europe might be disrupted.

That warning came more than two weeks before Trump announced he was banning Europeans from traveling to the United States, according to NPR’s report.

“Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel,” Burr told the business leaders. “You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip that they’re making to Europe is essential, or whether it can be done by video conference. Why risk it?”

According to NPR, Burr never made any of these warnings in public.

It’s not clear why Burr chose to issue such warnings privately instead of publicly, or why his warnings were stronger than those of Trump, who at the time was downplaying COVID-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus as less deadly than the typical annual flu strain.

The current COVID-19 outbreak has led to unprecedented shutdowns of schools and businesses across the country, tanking the stock market and leading to predictions of a global recession.

“The flu in our country kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year, that was shocking to me,” Trump said at a news conference at the White House on Feb. 26. “And so far if you look at what we have with the 15 people, and they are recovering.”

Even as recently as March 9, Trump was insisting the common flu was worse than the current pandemic.

“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” he tweeted. “At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Trump has since declared the outbreak a national emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged Americans to avoid crowds larger than 50 people and to self-quarantine if they have symptoms. The rest of the country has ground to a halt as people stay at home to avoid becoming infected.

Even Trump himself was forced to advise Americans recently to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, to prevent furthre spread of the virus.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.