WASHINGTON, Feb 28 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Friday sought to reassure Americans that it was responding to the threat of a U.S. coronavirus outbreak, as the flu-like illness spread to more countries and stock markets dropped sharply again.
Vice President Mike Pence, tapped by the White House this week to lead the nation’s coronavirus response, is due to meet with Florida’s governor to discuss the state’s virus-response efforts. Pence will also speak at two political events there.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is due to attend a roundtable meeting at the White House with officials, including the acting chief of the Office of Management and Budget, to discuss directing resources toward fighting coronavirus.
Criticism of the administration’s preparations has risen as the outbreak, which started in China late last year, has worsened. Five more countries reported their first cases on Friday and the World Health Organization said coronavirus could spread worldwide.
U.S. and global stocks plummeted again as rattled investors braced for the prospect that a pandemic could further dent an already slowing world economy, increasing the pressure on governments to quickly respond to the crisis.
The S&P 500 index was down about 4% in mid-morning trading on Friday, adding to the heavy losses it suffered in the previous four sessions this week. It is on track to notch its worst week since October 2008, during the global financial crisis.
President Donald Trump this week said the coronavirus risk to Americans remained “very low,” but he has been increasingly alarmed by the reaction of the U.S. stock market, which he considers a barometer of the economy’s health and sees as important to his re-election in November.
In tweets overnight, Trump said the coronavirus virus had spread “very slowly” to the United States and defended his administration’s response so far.
Media reported that the White House had directed all government health officials and scientists to coordinate their statements and public appearances with Pence.
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination to face Trump in the November election, criticized the White House and president’s response.
“No one takes the president’s word for these things. He at a mininum exaggerates everything. And the idea that he’s going to say, ‘Everything’s fine, don’t worry’? Who’s going to believe that? Let the experts speak, like we did in our administration,” Biden said in an interview with CNN.
The number of confirmed U.S. cases is still relatively small at around 60, most of them repatriated American passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan.
On Thursday, two U.S. officials told Reuters the Trump administration was considering invoking special powers to rapidly expand domestic production of protective masks and clothing to help combat the coronavirus in the United States.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has revised its criteria for who should be tested for the coronavirus and was shipping more test kits to states. It also is investigating how long the virus can survive on surfaces and remain infectious.
Quick confirmation of coronavirus cases is crucial to rapid response by local health authorities, and states previously reported that some test kits provided by CDC were producing inconclusive results.
China, where the coronavirus started, has borne the brunt of the outbreak, recording nearly 80,000 infections and almost 2,800 deaths. Countries other than China now account for about three-quarters of new infections.
Various treatments are being tested for the virus, which can lead to pneumonia, but a vaccine may take up to 18 months to develop, health officials have said.
Reporting by Susan Heavey and Makini Brice Writing by Paul Simao Editing by Alistair Bell