In context: What Biden aide Ron Klain said about the swine flu

“Joe Biden has no plan for Coronavirus – ALL TALK! He was a disaster in his handling of H1N1 Swine Flu. He didn’t have a clue, with his own Chief of Staff so saying.”

These are just a couple of the many times that President Trump has referred to remarks by Ron Klain, a former chief of staff for Joe Biden, concerning the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic. President Barack Obama is considered to have handled it pretty well, though that has not stopped Trump from arguing the opposite. An estimated 12,500 people died in the United States during that pandemic. (Here’s a fact check of that claim.)

But there’s a video circulating of Klain’s remarks and it sounds pretty damning. But as always, we warn readers, what is the context? Is there something missing?

Indeed, there is. Trump as usual overstates and twists what Klain said.

The Facts

We dug up the whole exchange on C-SPAN. The video above shows what Klain said immediately afterward. (We are limited to just a 60-second clip off C-SPAN.) So here’s the context.

First, Klain in 2019 was appearing on a panel marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic, hosted by the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs. Much of the discussion is eerie in retrospect, as the participants note how unprepared the United States was if a similar viral event were to occur.

The specific question Klain was addressing, posed by moderator Andrew Natsios, director of the Institute, was: “What could we do to create the incentives for industry to perhaps invest more money in research on this, for a universal flu vaccine, which, of course, companies are working on now?”

Klain had been the White House coordinator for responding to the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015, but served as Biden’s chief of staff when the swine flu pandemic struck. This is the section that turns up in the videos on YouTube:

“I wasn’t involved directly in the H1N1 response, but I lived through it as a White House staffer. And what I will say about it is a bunch of really talented, really great people working on it. And we did every possible thing wrong. And it’s, you know, 60 million Americans got H1N1 in that period of time. And it’s just purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history. Had nothing to do with us doing anything right. Just had to do with luck.”

But as Klain keeps going, he makes it clear he’s talking about vaccines.

“If anyone thinks this can’t happen again they don’t have to go back to 1918, they just have to go back to 2009-2010. Imagine a virus with a different lethality and you can just do the math on that. Now, what did that tell us? It told us that the vaccine will arrive late, told us that if it’s not prepared in advance or right away, if we don’t have the answer before, we’re not going to get the answer in time. And it told us that our systems for deciding how to distribute and administer vaccine in the time of crisis are going to be badly, badly tested. They also told us one other thing — that we really lack a global policy mechanism for dealing with these untested vaccines in an emergency situation.”

Indeed, there was an issue with developing the swine-flu vaccine during the outbreak. Not enough vaccines were produced, as the U.S. government decided to rely on a 50-year technology involving eggs — and the H1N1 virus grew more slowly in the eggs than expected.

“Even though the six-month goals for initial vaccine delivery were met, most of the vaccine arrived too late to vaccinate much of the public before the pandemic peaked,” the Health and Human Services Department concluded in a lengthy 2012 report, noting that early projections “regarding timing of vaccine supply changed frequently and were inaccurate. This led to public confusion and temporary erosion of confidence in the federal government, and created challenges for the planning and execution of local vaccine administration efforts.”

But, in what the report called “serendipity,” it turned out that just one dose was effective, rather than the anticipated two, so the supply that was produced went twice as far. Because the flu turned out to be relatively mild, hospitals were not as stressed as might have been expected.

That’s what Klain meant when he referred to luck.

“The point I was trying to make was about an over reliance on vaccines as a single strategy for coping with pandemics,” Klain told The Fact Checker in an email. “That was not in fact what happened on H1N1 but there had been a lot of chatter at the conference I was attending about vaccines as the dominant strategy.”

“What I was trying to say was that if one relies only on vaccines as your major strategy, and vaccines are late then you are screwed, and really bad things can happen,” Klain added. “Of course H1N1 was beaten without much use of the vaccine, Of course, you could argue that what Trump has been doing the past few months — downplaying testing, downplaying masks, downplaying tracing and other public health measures, while promising a cure/vaccine is ‘just around the corner’ — proves my point: the U.S. death rate from Covid post-June is unmatched in the world.”

Indeed, when the Scowcroft Institute issued a news release on conference, it used Klain’s quote to highlight that the United States was not prepared for a possible pandemic:

During the final panel of the afternoon, Ron Klain, who served as the White House Ebola Response Coordinator from 2014 to 2015 and as Chief of Staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, urged attendees to not take the current pandemic response infrastructure for granted and to keep striving for improvements.

He recalled the 2009-2010 H1N1 flu pandemic, which recorded an estimated 60 million cases and 12,000 deaths, as an example.

“It’s purely a fortuity that this wasn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history,” Klain said. “It had nothing to do with us doing anything right, it just had to do with luck. If anyone thinks this can’t happen again they don’t have to go back to 1918, they just have to go back to 2009-2010.”

The Bottom Line

Video is a powerful medium but readers must be wary about whether they understand the full context of the clip they are watching. Judging from our emails, many readers have been tricked by video snippets that the Trump campaign have used regarding fracking, police funding and Biden’s role in Ukraine. We have not seen this particular clip used in any Trump TV ads but Trump frequently mischaracterizes Klain’s point. It’s clear he was not talking about the overall response to the swine-flu pandemic or Biden’s role in it. Instead, he was making a point that in retrospect was rather prescient.

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