The Superspreader in Chief

Donald Trump's Re-Election Chances Infected by COVID-19

Donald Trump appeared to be immune to anything that might ail him – until he failed in the battle against the coronavirus. It could very well cost him re-election in three weeks.

By Ullrich Fichtner, Veronika Hackenbroch, René Pfister und Christoph Scheuermann

United States President Donald Trump: America's First Patient Foto: MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

Before Donald Trump himself became vulnerable, he was more than happy to label entire countries as "shitholes.” He disparaged Mexicans as rapists and used his Twitter account to indiscriminately denigrate TV hosts, actors, athletes and officials with just about any adjective he could muster. 

He demanded that members of Congress be removed from their seats, he insulted Senators, he attacked the justice system, mocked science, parodied people with disabilities and defiled the memory of fallen soldiers. For the longest time, none of this seemed to matter much.

Before Trump’s grip on power began to slip, he aggressively undermined the Constitutionally protected rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. He called facts into question and missed no opportunity to spread divisive propaganda. 

He called neo-Nazis in Charlottesville "good people” and, during his recent debate with Democratic challenger Joe Biden that was broadcast to 70 million television viewers, he voiced his apparent support for the far-right, racist "Proud Boys” movement. 

He has threatened to jail critics and opponents, and he has recently focused his attention on reviling mail-in voting, claiming with no proof whatsoever that it opens the door to electoral fraud. None of this has hurt him over all these years.

Before the foundation of Trump's power began to crumble, he separated the children of migrants on the Mexican border from their parents and had them locked in cages. 

He opened up protected areas in the Arctic for oil and gas drilling. He withdrew from the Paris climate deal and denied there is any such thing as man-made global warming, even as fires raged for weeks on the West Coast. Until recently, it seemed like nothing could harm him, like he was immune to everything.

In the middle of a global pandemic, the American president cut U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, he instigated trade conflicts with allies in Europe and North America and he flirted with dictators in the Middle and Far East. 

He drove his country into isolation in NATO and the United Nations. As a businessman, he pursued tax avoidance to an astonishing extent and accumulated debts like a con man. And despite all his promises, he never separated his private business from government affairs.

And yet for the longest time, none of this has been enough to shake his hopes for re-election on Nov. 3. It took the past 10 to 14 days for a cascade of events to finally diminish and perhaps even destroy Trump’s chances of victory.

In these past two weeks, a lot has happened even by the standards of the recent news cycles we have seen coming out of the U.S. Two weeks ago, the New York Times published its revelations about Trump’s tax records, destroying his legend of being a successful businessman and documenting his dangerous dependence on financial backers. 

The first TV debate early last week was so unprofessional, chaotic and, on Trump’s side, vituperative that it seems almost surprising that the 74-year-old Trump didn't physically attack the 77-year-old Biden.

Still, the New York Times revelations and the debate presumably wouldn’t have been a huge problem for Trump. His voters, after all, have already price in such chicanery. 

Nope, what it took was the kind of plot twist that even the best screenwriters would have blushed at: Trump, who has downplayed the coronavirus pandemic from the beginning, came down with COVID-19 - as obvious a development as it was unexpected. 


It seems likely that the virus forced its way into the White House around two weeks ago – and nine days ago, the president of the United States, one of the most sheltered people in the world, tested positive for the very disease he had been playing down for months. 

He had to be hospitalized for several days and he was treated with a cocktail of strong medications – all because of an illness that he repeatedly compared to a seasonal flu. 

The flu,though, wouldn't have had what it takes to finish Trump off politically. This virus, though, does – even if he completely recovers. After all, the president badly underestimated his opponent. And he wasn't immune.

If Trump fails on election day, and current polls indicate that he will, his management of the coronavirus pandemic will turn out to have been the decisive factor. If he fails, it will be because he didn’t take the virus seriously, instead trying to leverage all the presidential power at his disposal to transform public health into a partisan issue. 

Even after catapulting the pandemic to the top of the national agenda by getting infected with it himself, Trump is still trying to play the virus down. Since testing positive, America’s First Patient has performed terribly in dealing with the new situation.

He has since fallen far behind in polls in the swing states that will determine the election. In Michigan, Biden has an eight-point lead in the polls. He’s ahead by seven points in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and by four in Florida. 

Biden even stands a chance in Arizona, which has long been firmly in the hands of the Republicans. It’s remarkable how clearly voters over the age of 65 throughout the country are turning away from Trump. Four years ago, a majority of them voted for him.

Of course, things could still shift in the president’s favor and a lot can still happen with three weeks left to go before the vote, but Trump’s prospects for re-election are shrinking.

His election campaign team just recently scaled back TV ad buys in many states in the Midwest, another indication that the president sees his chances there dwindling. Trump’s favorite pollster, 

Rasmussen, sees him 12 points behind Biden in national surveys. In the national average of surveys compiled by the data analysts at FiveThirtyEight, Biden has held at least a six-point lead since June. On Friday, however, that lead hit 10 points.

Exacerbating His Worst Traits

The infection and the fact that his wife and many of his closest staff members also got sick could have made Trump more reflective and perhaps even a little more sympathetic. 

And things did quiet down a bit when Trump first went to the hospital. But since the weekend, he has been  screaming into the void more than ever. On some days, it has seemed as though the steroids he has been treated with have produced the side effect of exacerbating his worst traits.

Trump fans and their opponents in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Oct. 3: "Don't let coronavirus control you." Foto: Apu Gomes / AFP

His return to the White House from the Walter Reed Military Hospital by helicopter was carefully staged for primetime, yet another act in the endless spectacle of his toxic masculinity. But suddenly, his solemn strides, his military salutes, his thumbs up and raised chin all missed their mark. For many, his return didn't trigger relief, but dread.

The images, carefully captured with a phalanx of cameras, were intended to tell a story of strength. But they didn't. 

Trump instead seemed like an out-of-place buffoon, the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, a clown at the center of power who could be counted on to do anything but manage of the biggest crisis America has had to face in its recent history. In summoning up all his will to display his power, it suddenly became clear that he didn't have any.

Unintentionally, the images revealed that his power is completely divorced from responsibility, that he has no idea how to wield the power he holds, that he is only ever looking for his own benefit, even if it is a global pandemic.

Crude Mistakes

The mistakes he is now making are crude ones. His act of demonstratively pulling his mask off while standing on the Truman Balcony was seen as a gesture of irresponsibility. Trump, after all, was likely still contagious, just as he was one day earlier when he had his Secret Service detail drive him around in front of the hospital to ensure he would appear on TV.

He seems completely indifferent to the fact that he is currently putting all the people he meets in danger. And that anyone who has anything to do with him should actually be heading directly into quarantine. Trump seems to believe his own lies about the harmlessness of the virus. 

With that attitude, though, he is going to have trouble getting a majority of Americans to back him. It’s an attitude that has led to even more mistakes.

Once back at work, the U.S. president didn’t stop for a second for a bit of calm reflection about his own situation or that of his country. Instead, he grabbed for his smartphone and sent a video message to the world, one that millions of relatives of coronavirus victims were likely to find offensive: "Don’t let coronavirus control you,” the president said. "Don't be afraid of it."

Trump's illness has now given even more Americans pause: Perhaps there is, after all, a need for a change in strategy? 

How, for example, can you explain the fact that the U.S. only accounts for 4 percent of the global population, but fully 20 percent of the worldwide deaths from COVID-19? 

How did the country manage to reach the exorbitantly high number of 210,000 dead? 

How does that jibe with Trump’s mantra that his government has done a "fantastic job” in handling the coronavirus outbreak? 

And what if Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute for Infectious Diseases, is right with his warning that there may be another 190,000 deaths in the country before this is over?

Trump Never Took Virus Seriously

Even though he was informed of gravity of the situation very early on, Trump has never taken the pandemic seriously - and that’s now coming back to haunt him. His national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, warned as far back as January that the pandemic would be "the greatest national security threat to his presidency.” 

At the time, the U.S. had only a few confirmed infections, so Trump likely didn’t even think to take the warning seriously. He shifted to trivializing it, playing it down, denying it, wishful thinking and false hopes.

In mid-February, Trump said something that he would repeat on many occasions: "I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that and that type of virus. So, let’s see what happens, but I think everything is going to work out fine.”

A few weeks later, as the number of infections in the U.S. went through the roof, he announced he would quickly lift existing lockdown measures and reopen the country entirely by Easter in April. The governors who followed the Trump line turned their states into pandemic hotspots. Others who refused were verbally abused by the White House and threatened with cuts in federal funding.

The president's helicopter "Marine One" on its way to Walter Reed Hospital (on Friday, Oct. 2, with patient Donald Trump on board): "Sicker than was officially admitted."

The president's helicopter "Marine One" on its way to Walter Reed Hospital (on Friday, Oct. 2, with patient Donald Trump on board): "Sicker than was officially admitted." Foto: POLARIS / laif

In March, Trump openly admitted to investigative reporter Bob Woodward that he was well aware of the dangers of the pandemic and that he had deliberately trivialized them. "I wanted to always play it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump said. 

Citing legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Trump is still trying to sell that today as the responsible approach of a far-sighted leader. More likely, though, is that Trump was merely worried about what the disease could do to the economy and how it might affect his prospects for re-election.

Instead of doing all he could to contain the virus, as Churchill certainly would have done, Trump continued to downplay its effects in the hope that more positive messages would somehow keep the economy afloat. 

The Washington Post sifted through Trump’s appearances and statements for remarks that trivialized the coronavirus and found 138 such statements between January and today. Thins like: "It’s going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear."

But that miracle isn’t going to happen. Instead, a brutal reality is unfolding in the U.S., one that is partly due to the White House’s failure to implement a disease-prevention policy. According to one study, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved in the U.S. if a mask requirement had been introduced on April 1 for restaurant and retail employees.

Absurd Consequences

Instead, Trump continues to mock people who wear masks. Early on in the pandemic, he once said: "I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk — the great Resolute Desk — I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know. Somehow, I don’t see it for myself.”

Such statements set the tone.

The president continued to set a bad example and defined the attitude that was expected of hardcore Republicans. Instead of following the advice of his experts, who had been recommending that masks be worn since April, Trump managed to turn masks - an effective measure in combatting the pandemic – into a partisan issue.

The absurd consequences can be seen today in America: Whereas few people go out into the streets without a mask, let alone enter a restaurant, in Democratic strongholds like Washington, D.C., or New York, in Republican America, a hearty handshake without a mask is considered a sign that a person hasn’t somehow been misled by the liberal wimps on the East and West Coasts.

Under Trump’s leadership, the latest COVID hotspot is the White House, which has been largely abandoned since last week. The majority of the hundreds of employees who come to the office on normal days are now in quarantine or are working from home.

After the second in command of the U.S. Coast Guard tested positive, almost the entire senior military leadership, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the country’s top military leader, Mike Milley, had to go into quarantine on Tuesday for safety reasons. 

By Thursday, at least 20 people from the inner circle of Donald and Melania Trump, both of whom have COVID-19, had tested positive for the coronavirus, including many close advisers to the president. That, too, is Trump's responsibility.

Biden supporters in Miami: One overview of polls shows Trump trailing his Democratic opponent by 12 points Foto: Chandan Khanna / AFP

In the months since the outbreak of the pandemic, Trump has created an atmosphere in the White House in which mask wearers are made to look like borderline traitors, politically correct wusses. 

Among the few who resisted Trump’s dictate were Matthew Pottinger, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and current security adviser on China issues, and Olivia Troye, who was part of the coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence until August, when she resigned in frustration. "You were looked down upon when you would walk by with a mask,” Troye told the New York Times.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader in the Senate who has been loyal to Trump throughout has now distanced himself from the president on masking up. 

"I actually haven’t been to the White House since August the 6th,” he said on Thursday, "because my impression was their approach to how to handle this was different than mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”

Error-Prone Tests

In September, the president once address a reporter with the news agency Reuters by saying, "If you don't take it off, you're very muffled. So, if you would take it off, it would be a lot easier.” At the same time, Trump convinced himself and his people that everything was safe because the White House had a rigid testing regime.

There was indeed a lot of testing, but they relied on an error-prone rapid test. And the only staffers who received daily tests were those who came in direct contact with the president. 

In retrospect, the infection control plan concocted by the White House seems about as sophisticated as something a child would conceive. It didn’t work. By July, when National Security Adviser O’Brien was infected, it became clear how far the virus had already advanced into the core of the government in Washington.

With liberal Washington residents growing increasingly cautious, the White House was starting to look more like a clubhouse of corona-deniers in the administration. Trump Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany gave almost daily press conferences in which the symbolism could not have been any clearer: 

In the White House Press Room, reporters wore face masks and plastic gloves, but at the podium stood a spokesperson who seldom appeared with a mask. McEnany is now among those infected.

President Trump with coronavirus advisers (taskforce cordinator Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci): In Trump's world, there is no such thing as reliable information. Foto: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty Images

It is quite possible that she, like several others apparently, became infected at an event on Sept. 26, at a time when Trump - initially imperceptibly – began losing control over his own messaging. On that Saturday, the president proudly presented jurist Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy left behind by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. 

Ironically, Trump and his strategists saw the Rose Garden gathering as a way of finally changing the subject away from the infuriating pandemic and replacing it with a success story. But the plan backfired.

The garden party soon ended up in the headlines for other reasons. Before long, guest after guest began receiving a positive coronavirus diagnosis. Republican Senators Mike Lee from Utah and Thom Tillis from North Carolina came down with COVID-19, as did close White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had helped Trump prepare for his first debate.

White House Rejected Contact Tracing

There is no incontrovertible proof that they became infected in the Rose Garden, and it is likely that we'll never know for sure, but photos of the event show guests embracing and exchanging pecks on the cheek. 

Nevertheless, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offered to take over contact tracing for White House staffers who had become infected, it was rejected. The White House, it seems, prefers not to know.

What is clear, however, is that Trump will stop at nothing for a good show, even if it puts lives at risk. That may sound polemical, but it’s really just an accurate description of reality. 

When the president held a campaign rally on June 20 in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, sports arena, he did so without any apparent considerations for hygiene or pandemic prevention measures. 

Thousands of Trump supporters crammed into the arena as though there was no pandemic at all, even though the U.S. president has known for months that the potentially deadly virus can be transmitted through the air.

Indeed, each of the rallies he has held in recent months was little more than a lunatic experiment in the heart of a pandemic hotspot - likely with deadly consequences. In Oklahoma, former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain was in the audience. 

Like the vast majority of those present, he was wearing no mask. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with other Trump fans, Cain wrote on Twitter: "Having a fantastic time." 

Nine days later, the 74-year-old tested positive for the coronavirus, and four weeks after that, he was dead, having succumbed to complications from the infection. It is impossible to know for sure if Cain contracted the virus at the Trump event in Tulsa. 

But it is all but certain that the infection numbers in the city jumped in part because of the event – at least according to the city's top health official.

Nevertheless, Trump showed no indication that he might be willing to forego such large events. On the contrary, he continued making almost daily appearances before live audiences, both large and small, right up until last Friday, when he announced his and Melania's coronavirus infections on Twitter. 

It was almost as though he thought the laws of virology didn't apply to him and his supporters.

Criminal Negligence?

Even the day before he announced his positive test result, Trump played host at his golf club in Bedminster to around 200 wealthy donors, who paid several thousand dollars – even up to $250,000 – to dine and speak with the president and get their picture taken with him. 

Doing so, of course, was much more dangerous than they likely knew, and they certainly would have heard nothing about their potential for exposure from the White House.

After all, the president already knew by the time he arrived in Bedminster that Hope Hicks, a senior Trump adviser, had become infected with the virus, one of the first positive cases in the president's inner circle. 

They had been traveling together in Minnesota that Wednesday when Hicks began showing symptoms. On the flight back to Washington on Air Force One, Hicks reportedly isolated herself from the others.

Is the U.S. president a superspreader? Can one accuse him of criminal negligence for causing bodily harm? It is almost impossible to comprehend that the White House has shown zero interest in learning more about the outbreak in the innermost circle of power – that it isn't even clear when Trump actually came down with the virus.

All of the information provided about the world's most famous COVID-19 patient has been imprecise and contradictory – potentially also edited for political messaging. 

When Trump was sent to the hospital, his own chief of staff, Mark Meadows, described his condition as being much more critical than did his doctor, who said the president was exhibiting only mild symptoms. In Trump's world, there is no such thing as reliable information. 

Clemens Wendtner, chief physician at München Klinik Schwabing, a hospital in Munich, believes that he was "sicker than was officially admitted." It is a belief that seems confirmed by the list of medications that Trump was given. 

The antibody cocktail from the pharmaceutical company Regeneron that was administered to the president hasn't even been approved yet, with studies continuing into its efficacy and safety. 

The fact that his doctors were ready to prescribe him the medication despite the possible risks involved, and that he was apparently willing to try it out, would seem to indicate that his condition was more critical than the White House has been willing to admit.

The second medication he was prescribed, remdesivir, which inhibits viral replication, also hints at a more serious infection than has been publicly described. In the U.S., the intravenously administered drug is only approved for patients who have been hospitalized. 

Studies have shown that the drug has been able to speed up recovery times from 18 days to 12 days among severely ill patients receiving oxygen. For those with light symptoms, by contrast, the drug has no effect.

Medical experts are furthermore unsettled by the fact that Trump also received dexamethasone. "Dexamethasone primarily helps COVID-19 patients who are seriously ill," says Torsten Feldt, infectiologist and chief physician at the University Hospital of Dusseldorf. 

With less serious infections where supplemental oxygen isn’t necessary, it can even be harmful, he says. The drug inhibits the body's immune reaction, thus preventing a cytokine storm, the harmful overreaction of the immune system that is the cause of death for many COVID-19 patients.

The fact that Trump received this drug relatively early in the course of the disease and without having been placed on a respirator led to a fair amount of speculation among doctors. Did he perhaps contract the disease much earlier than claimed? 

Did he secretly receive oxygen? Or was Trump prescribed the medication to make him feel better so he could get back on the campaign trail more quickly?

One well-known side-effect of dexamethasone is the - at least temporary – improvement of the patient's mood and general feeling of well-being. "You can get almost any patient out of bed for a short time with dexamethasone," says Wendtner. 

"We call it the Lazarus effect." He says he has also heard from his own patients that the drug makes them feel 20 years younger, as Trump himself tweeted from the hospital. "The drug elevates your self-esteem," Wendtner says. Coming down, though, is more difficult, he adds.

Trump Has Badly Miscalculated

But as uncertain as the true state of Trump's health may be, experts are united in their verdict concerning the president's catastrophic pandemic response. The well-respected New England Journal of Medicine even broke with its 208-year tradition of refraining from political commentary. 

In the most recent issue, the journal's editors harshly criticize America's "current political leaders." Without explicitly naming Trump, they take the kid gloves off, writing: "Anyone else who recklessly squandered lives and money in this way would be suffering legal consequences."

Trump, the sick man of the White House, has apparently badly miscalculated as his term comes to an end. His strategy of presenting himself as the virile antithesis of challenger Joe Biden has disintegrated. 

Events, after all, have now clearly proven the propriety of the campaign strategy chosen by Biden, who has largely campaigned by video from his Delaware home since the beginning of the pandemic and has only reluctantly taken part in live events.

His was the rational, proper response to a deadly pandemic. Trump's attempts to paint Biden's behavior as proof of his weakness have boomeranged. Instead, it is Trump himself who now looks irresponsible and irrational, while "Sleepy Joe," in Trump's parlance, looks trustworthy and reliable.

Many of Trump's histrionic appearances now appear in a different, more malicious light. The fact that he broke with tradition by using the White House as the backdrop for his Republican convention propaganda show in August remains unforgotten. 

Now, though, it is all the more apparent that he - just as he did during the announcement of his Supreme Court nomination of Barrett 14 days ago – unnecessarily put the lives of many people at risk. How can someone serve the public good when he doesn't even care about the health of those closest to him?

Trump had plenty of opportunities to prevent this impression and to get a better handle on the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control has for decades been the gold standard when it comes to fighting epidemics worldwide, and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, enjoys widespread respect from both sides of the political spectrum.

Indeed, Fauci would be a gift to any president finding himself faced with a dangerous pandemic; his expertise as a virologist is undisputed. Early on in his career, he developed a therapy for deadly autoimmune diseases, and in the 1980s, he was one of the leading scientists in the effort to better understand HIV. 

More than anything, though, the 79-year-old has the ability to produce simple and useful explanations for complicated medical issues.

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, Fauci spoke with Trump almost daily, and during his appearances with the president, his message was the same as that being communicated by virologists around the world: keep your distance, wash your hands and limit contact with others. He also warned against the premature resumption of normal day-to-day activities.

But his support for even these obvious precautions was enough to get on Trump's bad side. In April, the president retweeted a post written by a failed Republican Congressional candidate that included the hashtag #FireFauci. 

In mid-July, a memo from the White House Press Office was leaked which described how best to discredit Fauci in public. It made it look as though the president wasn't waging war against the virus, but against logic and those who would espouse it.

Breathtaking Irresponsibility

Trump still hasn't dared to fire Fauci, likely because he still has enough political instinct to understand that getting rid of a scientist who has served under six presidents wouldn't be the best look for him. 

But his treatment of the expert virologist has reflected the full breadth of Trump's breathtaking irresponsibility, his inability to set the right priorities and his jealousy of anyone and everyone with whom he must share the spotlight. 

Ever since he himself has contracted COVID-19, it has become more apparent than ever that the president is completely lacking in rationality and possesses no compassion whatsoever. Despite spending his days posting a constant stream of vitriol on Twitter, he has yet to find any words of comfort for the many people in his orbit who have become infected - who he, himself, may have infected. 

Trump knows only all-caps and exclamation points, but it seems that an increasing number of people are no longer buying what he is selling.

Perhaps he has made a few too many empty promises. He can, of course, make the argument that his Democratic enemies bear responsibility for the fact that his highly vaunted wall on the border with Mexico was neither paid for by Mexico nor really completed at all. 

But the fact that there likely won't be a vaccine against the coronavirus prior to the election despite Trump's oft-repeated pledges to the contrary isn’t helping his chances.

Trump's most recent effort to heap pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to loosen its standards for approving vaccines came in the middle of this week. Really, though, nobody but Trump wants to see such a development, not even the pharmaceutical industry. And the FDA rejected Trump's call and reiterated its commitment to long-established practices.

In such situations, Trump seems like the perfect poster boy for what scientists have dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes the phenomenon of incompetent people vastly overestimating their abilities due to their own inability to recognize their incompetence. 

Trump provided a fantastic example during his debate with Biden, when he once again claimed that a coronavirus vaccine would soon be available. When debate moderator Chris Wallace confronted the president with the fact that CDC Director Robert Redfield didn't agree and believes that a vaccine will only be widely available in the middle of next year, Trump responded: "I disagree."

The consequence of such hubris can be seen in the current pandemic statistics. There are around 40,000 new coronavirus cases each day in the United States, with roughly 700 daily COVID-19 deaths. In over 20 states, the trend is moving in the wrong direction.

Such numbers are horrific, and even worse for Trump is the fact that his policies haven't just managed to make the pandemic worse. He has also been unable to get the economy going again, a rather significant blow to his self-spun legend of being a business genius. There have been no winners in the Trump presidency, only losers – and that likely applies to him personally.

Losing Ground

Even before his illness and the heavy drugs he has had to take as a result, the president's Twitter eruptions had long seemed to hint at a somewhat tenuous relationship with lucidity. Nevertheless, a tweet from this week was especially egregious – one that temporarily sent the stock market reeling and provoked an immediate and stinging rebuke from industrial leaders and from his own party. In the tweet, Trump announced that he was suspending negotiations with the Democrats over an additional coronavirus aid package worth around $2 trillion. The precise total was still up for debate, but not the basic necessity of the state help.

Trump's strategy of presenting himself as the virile antithesis of challenger Joe Biden has disintegrated.

It was a major political misstep, one which Trump then sought to correct a few hours later - again via Twitter. The episode made it look to all the world as though Trump was no longer in full possession of his faculties. Indeed, his chances for re-election seem to be shrinking by the day, unless something happens at the last moment to reverse the trend.

Perhaps the most unsettling development for the incumbent is that he has been losing ground in the northern states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and even Ohio, exactly the states where he won the election four years ago. It isn't even certain that he will be able to win Georgia, a state that the Democrats last won fully 28 years ago, back when the candidate was named Bill Clinton.

The first televised debate was a disaster for Trump, and he has raised the possibility of declining to participate in a second debate. With the debate commission having announced its intention to hold the second debate via video link, Trump told Fox anchor Mario Bartiromo on Thursday morning that he wouldn't "waste my time on a virtual debate" given that moderators could cut off his microphone at any time.

He sounded manic in the interview, expressing displeasure with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr, accusing them of not doing enough to combat alleged mail-in voting fraud – which Trump has been harping on about for months, despite there being no evidence that it is a significant problem – and of not taking action against his political opponents. He finished off the interview by calling for charges to be filed against Hillary Clinton. It is almost as though Trump is still stuck in 2016 when he was running against her.

In his efforts to turn his re-election campaign around, Trump really can’t go any lower. 

He has even tried to emulate Brazilian autocrat Jair Bolsonaro, who tried to use his own experience with contracting and then recovering from COVID-19 as some kind of proof that fear of the virus was badly exaggerated. But the numbers in the U.S. disprove this narrative so clearly that Trump's attempts to sell it look increasingly divorced from reality.

The majority of Americans have long been of the opinion that their president has proven to be an inadequate manager of the crisis. The fact that he has now become infected has only solidified that impression. And the number of his detractors has recently risen even further: 

According to a survey conducted by CNN, two-thirds of people in the U.S. believe that Trump has been irresponsible in handling the risk of infecting others around him with the coronavirus. Woman and elderly voters are particularly disappointed in Trump, groups from which he needs support if he wants to be re-elected.

The president's poor survey results are hardly surprising. In the past several months, Trump has acted as though the virus couldn't harm him. His ridicule of Biden and the mask-wearing Democrats has always been informed by the rather ridiculous notion that the illness could be held at bay by strength of will. 

His own bout with COVID-19 has revealed such nonsense for what it is. And many Americans also saw the video from Monday showing Trump gasping for breath after climbing the few steps to the Truman Balcony.

He didn't look much like a winner. Nor like an American president, for that matter. 

The Core of the ECB’s New Strategy

Now that the European Union has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the European Central Bank must start preparing for the structural shifts that lie ahead. In a world where governments want the prices of certain forms of energy to rise, the concept of price stability becomes more complicated.

Hélène Rey

LONDON – Following in the footsteps of the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank has launched an in-depth review of its monetary-policy strategy. But as central banks contemplate fundamental changes in their approach, they should be mindful of possible disruptions in their operational environment.

Nowhere is this truer than in strategies to address climate change, one of the most important issues of our time. Since European countries have pledged to make their economies carbon-neutral by 2050, the ECB now must reflect on how its monetary-policy framework could help with that transition.

Although the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union makes maintaining price stability the primary objective of the European System of Central Banks, it also states that, “Without prejudice to [that] objective, … the ESCB shall support the general economic policies in the Union with a view to contributing to the achievement of the objectives of the Union as laid down in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union.” 

According to Article 3, the Union “shall work for … a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment.”

Obviously, a decarbonized economy cannot be achieved without profound structural changes. Here, the COVID-19 crisis has provided a reality check. While the International Monetary Fund estimates that the pandemic will reduce global GDP this year by about 4.9%, the International Energy Agency anticipates an 8% global reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. 

Yet emissions reductions of that magnitude must happen every year between now and 2030 if we are to have any chance of keeping global average temperatures within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels.

In addition to the human toll, the global recession has imposed an enormous burden on public finances, threatening young people’s education, as well as the gains made by women and developing countries in recent decades. 

The upshot is that climate change cannot be addressed by simply reducing economic activity; overhauling existing production systems will be absolutely necessary. The only way to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is to transform how we produce, transport, and consume.

One of the most efficient ways to do this – and perhaps the only way – is to increase the price of carbon while accelerating the pace of technological innovation. But this approach inevitably would trigger significant supply shocks. 

The cost of inputs, particularly energy, would become more volatile as the price of carbon rises and renewables gradually replace fossil fuels. And, beyond energy, transportation and agriculture also would be subject to large, potentially disruptive changes in relative prices.

Whatever monetary framework central banks settle upon, it will have to be able to accommodate the large structural shifts and relative-price effects ushered in by decarbonization. Because it is not possible to maintain a constant rate of increase across all prices, the question for monetary policymakers will be which price index to stabilize.

Under the current framework, the ECB targets eurozone inflation by way of the Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices (HICP). But this index includes energy prices, making it ill-suited for the decarbonization challenge. With inflation in carbon prices having been engineered by EU policymakers, the ECB should not try to force down other prices in the HICP when the relative price of energy rises, as that would create even greater distortions.

The unavoidable conclusion, then, is that the ECB will have to abandon the HICP index and use core inflation indices that exclude energy and food prices. The reason is not just that core inflation is a more reliable indicator of the lower-frequency component of inflation. 

Rather, it is that monetary policymakers will need to distinguish between price changes that are occurring for good reasons (as a result of desirable structural changes) versus price changes that indicate a temporary imbalance between supply and demand. The ECB should seek to minimize only the latter category.

True, it is sometimes argued that central banks should target consumer price indices like the HICP because these better reflect purchasing power and make policy decisions easier to explain. Yet recent surveys show that the current framework already is not well understood by the public.

Clearly, central banks need to improve their communication policies. But it is not obvious that targeting a core price index that has been purged of energy prices would be any more problematic than the current approach when it comes to communicating with the public. And it should be even less problematic for experts who follow monetary-policy issues closely.

Beyond changing its target price, the ECB could also consider reforms to make its framework more robust against supply shocks. One option is to target a path for nominal GDP, so that cost-push shocks accompanied by economic slowdowns do not trigger unwanted interest-rate increases. 

In a post-pandemic environment where nominal debt levels will be high for a long time, it would be problematic to have to tighten monetary policy just because an adverse supply shock pushed inflation past 2%. 

If real (inflation-adjusted) GDP growth were subdued, monetary tightening could destabilize debt dynamics and lead to dramatic consequences.

Hélène Rey is Professor of Economics at the London Business School and a member of the Haut Conseil de Stabilité Financière.

From AI to facial recognition: how China is setting the rules in new tech

In its bid to rival the US, Beijing wants to establish the industrial standards that will shape future industries

James Kynge in Hong Kong and Nian Liu in Beijing 

Zhao Houlin is head of the UN’s telecoms agency, an independent international arbiter that sets some of the rules shaping the modern technology industry. But that does not stop him from letting his patriotism burst into the open.

A former government official in China, Mr Zhao has repeatedly lionised the Belt and Road Initiative, the pet project of Chinese president Xi Jinping to invest in overseas infrastructure. He has also defended Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecoms champion, against US accusations that its equipment can be used for espionage.

“Those preoccupations with Huawei equipment, up to now there is no proof so far,” Mr Zhao, who is secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, told reporters in Geneva last year. “I would encourage Huawei to be given equal opportunities to bid for business.”

But it is in his unabashed support for Chinese technology standards that Mr Zhao’s loyalty to Beijing is most striking. Although he was sworn into his ITU role with a pledge to act “with the interest of the union only in view” while avoiding influence from any one country, he regularly celebrates China’s growing presence in the telecoms and internet industries.

“Nowadays in the discussion of relevant ITU standards, China’s technical strength is already in the first echelon and the international community expects China to play a greater role in the UN system,” Mr Zhao was quoted by the People’s Daily, an official Chinese newspaper, as saying last week. In other statements carried by the Chinese media he has praised the role of the country’s telecoms companies in setting new industry standards.

Mark Warner of the US Senate intelligence committee says Beijing is intending to control digital infrastructure and, as it does so, to impose principles that are antithetical to US values © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Zhao Houlin, head of the independent UN telecoms agency, regularly celebrates China’s growing presence in the telecoms and internet industries © Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Mr Zhao declined to comment on his statements. His advocacy of China’s interests, however, throws light on the intensifying geopolitical battleground of technological standards, a much overlooked yet crucial aspect of a new struggle for global influence between China and the US.

Such standards might seem obscure, but they are a crucial element of modern technology. If the cold war was dominated by a race to build the most nuclear weapons, the contest between the US and China — as well as the EU — will partly be played out through a struggle to control the bureaucratic rule-setting that lies behind the most important industries of the age.

Gearing up

The commercial and geopolitical power of industrial protocols has long been recognised. Werner von Siemens, the 19th-century German industrialist and innovator who gave his name to the Siemens conglomerate he founded, said: “He who owns the standards, owns the market.”

Standard-setting has for decades largely been the preserve of a small group of industrialised democracies. Everything from the width of train tracks, to software, satellites, the frequencies that mobile phones use and a whole gamut of rules about how electronic gadgets work and process data have been decided by western-dominated standards organisations.

But China now has other ideas. “Industrial standards are an important area of contestation in the new cold war, with both Beijing and Washington gearing up to shape the development and implementation of global standards,” says Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyber space policy programme at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank.

He and other experts say an intensifying US-China battle to dominate standards, especially in emerging technologies, could start to divide the world into different industrial blocs. In the same way that rail passengers who travel from western Europe to some former Soviet bloc countries must to this day change trains to accommodate different track widths, strategic competition between the US and China raises the spectre of a fragmentation of standards that creates a new technological divide.

Mr Segal says it is possible, for example, that 5G mobile telecoms — a bedrock technology that enables the “internet of things” — may be divided into two competing stacks to reflect US and Chinese influence. Some measure of division is also possible in semiconductors, artificial intelligence and other areas where US-China rivalry is intense, he adds.

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program in Beijing. The technology used in 'smart cities', which automate multiple municipal functions, represent a big prize for China’s standards drive © Thomas Peter/Reuters

“In some sectors, there will be two stacks that are relatively incompatible,” says Mr Segal. “But in others, there is likely to be some demand that they co-operate. It is possible that large markets that make it clear they do not want to choose between China and the US may be able to pressure Chinese and US tech firms to ensure some degree of compatibility.”

In Washington, the battle for influence over technology standards is seen in some quarters as crucial to defending democracy from the influence of China, which Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, describes as “the world’s leading pioneer of what we call techno-authoritarianism”.

Mark Warner, Democratic vice-chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, sees the threat from China in equally unambiguous terms. Beijing is intending to control the next generation of digital infrastructure, he says, and, as it does so, to impose principles that are antithetical to US values of transparency, diversity of opinion, interoperability and respect for human rights.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, [the US] leadership role has eroded and our leverage to establish standards and protocols reflecting our values has diminished,” Mr Warner told a webinar in September. “As a result others, but mostly China, have stepped into the void to advance standards and values that advantage the Chinese Communist party.”

“Communist party leaders are developing a model of technological governance that . . . would make Orwell blush,” Mr Warner added, referring to George Orwell, the British writer of the dystopian novel 1984.

Such issues are exercising others in Washington too. Two congressmen, David Schweikert and Ami Bera, introduced bipartisan legislation called the Ensuring American Leadership Over International Standards Act in June to commission a study on China’s influence in the setting of global technology standards.

Military and civil applications

From a US perspective, China’s challenge derives from three main areas. First, it is developing world-beating technology in several emerging areas, such as 5G telecoms and AI. 

Second, as it exports this technology — often to more than 100 countries that participate in the Belt and Road Initiative — it is nurturing adherence to a distinctly Chinese set of standards and protocols. Third, Beijing is boosting its influence in the UN and other standards-setting bodies to enhance the interests of its own companies.

Yang Guang, a Beijing-based senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, a consultancy, says China has long been interested in raising the profile of its technology standards. “It is just that foreigners didn’t pay attention before,” he says, naming as examples TD-SCMA and WAPI, two telecoms standards that largely failed to catch on more than a decade ago.

The Chinese government is working towards a standards masterplan — China Standards 2035 — which Beijing was expected to publish before the end of this year. 

The strategy is expected to set out standardisation goals for crucial next-generation technologies. It is also due to emphasise the imperative to strengthen China’s role in standards organisations, analysts say.

“The strategy will also focus on standards to facilitate civil-military fusion — a concept that has gained considerable traction in China and has caused a stir in strategic communities overseas, particularly in Washington,” wrote research fellow John Seaman in a report this year for the French Institute of International Relations and the Policy Center for the New South.

Military-civil fusion is a plan to use the best of civilian research and development to bolster the technological capacities of the People’s Liberation Army. The drive is led by Mr Xi himself, who heads the Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development. It is believed to target civilian advances in “dual use” areas such as quantum computing, big data, semiconductors, 5G and AI, but concrete initiatives are shrouded in secrecy.

“China’s greatest potential lies in areas where standards have yet to be collectively developed and defined,” Mr Seaman says. “It can roll out technologies using Chinese standards in foreign markets, creating ‘facts on the ground’.”

Digital silk road

Crucial to the goal of popularising Chinese standards overseas is the Belt and Road Initiative, which Mr Zhao described in a blog on the ITU’s website as holding “so much promise”.

The BRI is generally seen as a huge Chinese programme to build roads, railways, ports, airports and other forms of infrastructure in mostly developing countries. But this portrayal overlooks a key point. The BRI is also a means of diffusing Chinese technologies — and the standards they operate on — across the developing world by constructing what Beijing calls a “digital silk road”.

A Huawei logo in Belgrade, Serbia. Zhao Houlin of the UN’s telecoms agency has defended the company against US accusations that its equipment can be used for espionage © Marko Djurica/Reuters

“The Chinese government has been actively promoting its internet and cyber governance playbook in many developing countries, most recently by leveraging 5G connectivity and smart city projects along the digital silk road,” says Rebecca Arcesati, an analyst at Merics, a Berlin-based think-tank.

“Smart cities” are a focus of this standards diffusion effort because they incorporate so many emerging technologies. The facial recognition systems, big data analysis, 5G telecoms and AI cameras that go into creating smart cities are all technologies for which standards remain up for grabs. Thus smart cities, which automate multiple municipal functions, represent a big prize for China’s standards drive.

“China is setting standards from the bottom-up through widespread export and foreign adoption of its technology,” says Jonathan Hillman, an analyst at CSIS, a Washington-based think-tank. “A country such as Serbia might not sit down and decide they want to adopt Chinese standards, but after enough purchases and deals, they might end up with Chinese standards. There is the risk of lock-in, a point after which switching becomes too costly.”

Serbia is just one of many countries that has signed up to a Chinese-installed smart city package complete with surveillance cameras supplied by Hikvision, a company blacklisted by the US because of suspected human rights abuses in Xinjiang. 

Indeed, the smart city package is proving immensely popular for governments that wish to automate services such as traffic management, sewage systems and public safety while keeping a close eye on what its people are up to.

According to research by RWR Advisory, a Washington-based consultancy, Chinese companies have done 116 deals to install smart city and “safe city” packages around the world since 2013, with 70 of these taking place in countries that also participate in the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The main difference between “smart” and “safe” city equipment is that the latter is intended primarily to surveil and monitor the population, while the former is primarily aimed at automating municipal functions while also incorporating surveillance functions.

Cities in western and southern Europe together signed up to a total of 25 such “smart” and “safe” projects, according to RWR Advisory. Cities in south-east Asia and the Middle East were also key recipients, taking 16 and 15 respectively.

Andrew Davenport, chief operating officer at RWR Advisory, says smart cities open the door to a series of risks. “Smart cities essentially increase the downside risk considerably of cyber intrusions or abuses, both in terms of data security and cyber security,” he says. 

“The cyber risk that is associated with entities that are subject to Chinese laws and governance structures is amplified in this environment.”

People pass facial recognition cameras at Peking University. China's growing influence in global IT standards-setting bodies is facing a US backlash, while the EU is likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions © Thomas Peter/Reuters

Chinese school children learn about artificial intelligence technology in Haian City. Some measure of global division is possible in semiconductors, AI and other areas where US-China rivalry is intense © Costfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty

Alongside these export moves designed to inculcate its technology standards, China is also active in signing political agreements to the same end.

The 2019 China Standardisation Development annual report, an official document, makes clear that promoting Chinese technology standards is a BRI priority. As of 2019, some 85 standardisation co-operation agreements with 49 countries and regions had been signed, though scant literature exists on the depth and specific contents of such agreements.

Institutional push

Not content with forging bilateral agreements along the Belt and Road, China is also trying to persuade multilateral standards agencies to recognise its growing clout.

As recently as 2007, China was a minnow in the International Organization for Standardization, one of the world’s leading standards-setting bodies, with 164 member countries. Back then, it had sparse representation on the all-important technical committees and subcommittees that do much to decide which standards to adopt.

But in 2008, Beijing managed to win a place as the sixth permanent member of the ISO’s council and in 2013 it became a permanent member of its technical management board, alongside the US, Japan, the UK, Germany and France. In 2015, the organisation got its first Chinese president when Zhang Xiaogang, a former steel industry executive, was chosen for a three-year term.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo discusses the ‘5G clean path’ cyber security programme © Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters

It has been a similar story at the 88-member International Electrotechnical Commission, an organisation that publishes standards on all electronic items. China’s influence at the IEC has grown steadily, culminating in the appointment in January of Shu Yinbiao — who is also chairman of the State Grid Corporation of China — as president of the IEC. Mr Zhao completes the picture as head of the ITU, which he is due to lead until 2023.

The increased representation has had a marked effect on China’s standards-setting clout. As of March 2019, for instance, China had proposed 11 standards for the internet of things within the ISO/IEC framework, of which five had been adopted and published and six were still pending review, Mr Seaman said.

State Grid Corporation of China has also pulled off a coup. The IEC has agreed to take on co-ordinating standards for a concept called Global Energy Interconnection, which essentially aims to create huge grids of power cables that run between countries and continents. If the idea gets off the ground it could directly benefit State Grid, which is the global leader in making ultra-high voltage transmission lines.

The build-up of such institutional firepower in these standards-setting bodies is a sure sign that China is set to wield much more influence over global technological standards. But equally as sure is that the backlash from Washington is building. Europe, for its part, is likely to be squeezed by competing superpower ambitions.

“The non-transparent and authoritarian way in which China is going about data security management at home undermines trust in its standards and platforms abroad,” says Merics analyst Ms Arcesati. “On the other hand, the current US strategy is essentially equating data security with a total and unilateral decoupling from Chinese technology in the digital domain.

“This puts Europe is an extremely difficult position,” she adds.

The worst-case scenario, as described by Mr Seaman, is of a growing technological divide. If international collaboration on standards grinds to a halt, it could create opposing technology blocs that do not talk to each other. “Think of it almost like trying to connect with someone on [Tencent’s] WeChat by using Facebook, but on an industrial scale.”

Mr Davenport sees a similar risk. “If the US does engage more proactively in trying to confront Chinese influence over standard-setting bodies . . . it could lead China to explore creating parallel alternatives. This could ultimately result in a more bifurcated arena on industrial standards.”

Charting a Coronavirus Infection

By Katherine J. Wu and Jonathan Corum

After months of downplaying the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, President Trump announced early Friday morning that he and the first lady, Melania Trump, had tested positive for the coronavirus. 

He has been hospitalized at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and has experienced mild to moderate symptoms, including a fever, cough and congestion. He also reportedly had low blood oxygen levels at least twice on Friday and Saturday.

It’s too soon to tell whether his illness will follow a typical course, or how severe his symptoms may become. And with millions of people sickened worldwide, no single timeline can encompass the range of Covid cases. But months of data have helped scientists home in on the general portrait of a symptomatic coronavirus case.

Exposure and Incubation

The time between initial exposure to the virus and the appearance of symptoms is known as the incubation period. This period is typically four to five days, although it can last up to 14 days, or perhaps even longer in rare cases.

It remains unclear who infected Mr. Trump, although there are many potential candidates, several of whom gathered with the president during White House event for Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26 or have traveled with him to crowded campaign rallies.

Symptoms and Recovery

Most people who come down with Covid recover within a couple of weeks and do not require hospitalization. Severe cases, however, may take far longer to resolve. And a growing cohort of coronavirus survivors, called long-haulers, has reported symptoms and side effects — including fatigue, impaired memory and heart problems — that can linger for months.

People who develop severe cases of Covid tend to be hospitalized within two weeks or so of the emergence of symptoms. But many of the factors that catapult certain people toward severe forms of the disease remain a scientific mystery. 

Scientists know that people who are male, older and obese — all descriptors of President Trump — are at higher risk for more serious effects of Covid.

Viral Load

After an initial exposure, the number of virus particles in a person’s body, or viral load, takes time to build up as the pathogen infiltrates cells and copies itself repeatedly. 

Mathematical models indicate that the viral load tends to peak before symptoms appear, if they appear at all, and starts to decline rather quickly in the days following the first signs of illness.

Experts have said that people are more likely to be contagious when their viral loads are high. If so, the window of peak infectiousness might be only a few days long, beginning a day or two before symptoms appear, and closing within a week thereafter.

This also means that people can be highly contagious during the so-called presymptomatic stage, in the days before they develop symptoms. 

Separately, asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus have also been repeatedly pinpointed as the source of transmission events, although how the virus behaves in the bodies of such people is less understood.

If Mr. Trump’s symptoms appeared on Wednesday or Thursday, he may have exposed several people in the days prior. 

He most likely remains contagious now. In a series of tweets early Friday morning, the president confirmed that he and Mrs. Trump would isolate themselves — a move that swiftly canceled several events in the tense lead-up to the Nov. 3 election. 

Later, Mr. Trump was taken to Walter Reed for a stay of several days. He has been given an experimental antibody treatment developed by the drug maker Regeneron, an antiviral drug called remdesivir and the steroid dexamethasone.

Testing for the Virus

For months, the White House has screened people coming into close contact with Mr. Trump. Many of these screenings are rapid tests, delivering actionable results within minutes without needing to send samples to a laboratory. 

Such speed and convenience can come at the cost of accuracy: Rapid tests are worse at picking up on low viral loads and very recent infections, and more often produce false negatives or false positives. 

Some experts argue that true positives from rapid tests might coincide with the period in which people are most contagious, although this has not yet been confirmed.

Rapid tests like the much-discussed Abbott ID Now and BinaxNOW have been given an emergency F.D.A. green light only for sick people who are within seven days of the start of symptoms. 

Use on individuals who don’t feel ill is considered off-label, and negative results from such tests can’t rule out an infection or contagiousness.

People with known exposure to an infected person — like Mr. Trump — or who have already developed symptoms may need to take a more sensitive test. 

Experts often recommend laboratory tests that rely on a technique called P.C.R. (polymerase chain reaction) that can detect very small amounts of the virus, but that usually takes several hours to run on sophisticated, expensive machines.

Because a P.C.R. test is more sensitive to low viral loads, it may be able to detect a coronavirus infection very early on. 

But the diagnostic test can also pick up harmless bits of the virus that linger in the body after symptoms have resolved, and perhaps after a person stops being contagious.

Antibodies are produced by the body in response to an invading pathogen, starting about a week or so into an infection, and can persist in the blood for months. Another type of test, called a serology test, looks for these antibodies instead of the virus. Experts do not consider antibody tests to be a reliable way to determine whether a person is harboring the coronavirus.

Preventing Infection

Because the virus can be transmitted by people who feel healthy, experts have stressed the importance of deploying multiple public health measures to combat its spread. While no single tactic can confer complete protection, combining actions like mask-wearing, physical distancing, handwashing and avoiding crowded spaces rapidly ratchets down risk.

Masks and face coverings that swaddle the nose and mouth can block much of transmission, and seem especially effective at waylaying outbound virus from an infected individual. But there’s evidence that masks can thwart some percentage of inbound pathogens as well, even if they don’t make the wearer impervious to infection.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly shirked masks for much of the pandemic. On Tuesday night during the debate, he mocked former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for his stringent commitment to face coverings and physical distancing.

Infected people can also reduce the chance of passing on the virus by isolating themselves for at least 10 days after symptoms appear, as long as they continue to improve. 

Those who have been exposed to someone with a known case of the coronavirus should quarantine for two weeks and seek a test. Up to 40 percent of infections might lack symptoms, although some estimates have been even higher.

Based on data gleaned from other respiratory viruses, researchers think there is likely to be a minimum infectious dose for the coronavirus, or the lowest number of virus particles necessary to establish an infection. That number most likely varies from person to person, and there is not yet firm data on what a typical dose might be.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that people with Covid are unlikely to be infectious for more than 10 to 20 days after their symptoms start.