U.S. Looks to Reopen as Covid-19 Cases Near a Million and WHO Warns Against 'Immunity Passports'

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin talks of reopening the U.S. economy by next month.
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* Deaths in the U.S. rise as total global toll could be far higher than realized

* Virologist tells TheStreet that recovered patients should develop some immunity, despite reports about re-infection

* Mnuchin promises 'bounce' back over summer

The number of known cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. grew closer to the one million mark on Sunday -- logging in over 960,000 total infections, according to the coronavirus-infection tracking map by Johns Hopkins. The total death toll in the U.S., meanwhile, crept toward 55,000, the same number of people who died over the entire year from influenza and pneumonia combined in 2017.

Still, the federal government and various states are now looking at reopening the economy in the weeks ahead, while some such as Georgia are already trying to get back to normal.

"I think as we begin to reopen the economy in May and June you're going to really see the economy bounce back in July, August, September," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a member of the president's coronavirus task force, to Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." "We are putting in an unprecedented amount of fiscal relief into the economy."

When Wallace challenged that optimistic assertion, Mnuchin said this is not a "financial crisis," but a scenario in which "we have closed the economy and we are going to open the economy." 

But questions are growing about the numbers of those infected and when people can go back to working, shopping and eating out as normal, as the U.S. now makes up about a third of the nearly 3 million cases globally. 

Furthermore, throwing uncertainty into how accurate the publicized case numbers are, late last week it was discovered that people had died of the novel coronavirus weeks earlier than first thought -- in early February -- and a sample of antibody testing in New York suggested that the total infection rate was 14% -- far higher than the rate found through previous testing methods. 

The total death toll from the virus may also be far higher than believed -- as an additional 120,000 deaths appear not to have been accounted for in 14 countries, according to an analysis published Sunday by the Financial Times.

Also, hopes that people who had Covid-19 and then recovered would be immune to the disease -- an assumption that could help restart the economy -- were thrown into doubt over the weekend when the World Health Organization issued a statement Saturday warning that "there is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection."

The nightmare scenario that people could get re-infected first emerged in February when a report in a Taiwanese newspaper told of patients in China who had supposedly recovered from the virus but then fell gravely ill soon after.

"What I took from that statement is that protective immunity has not yet been conclusively demonstrated, not that there's evidence that there is no protective immunity," said Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.

At the time, a virologist told TheStreet that it could be that people actually had false negative tests and were still carrying the virus when they were sickened again. 

Another virologist told TheStreet on Sunday that the WHO's report has been somewhat "misunderstood." 

"What I took from that statement is that protective immunity has not yet been conclusively demonstrated, not that there's evidence that there is no protective immunity," said Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.

"Preliminary data so far does indicate that most patients have measurable antibody responses, and that often these antibodies are neutralizing -- meaning they can bind and inactivate the virus. Furthermore, reinfection did not occur in at least one study using a rhesus monkey model of SARS-CoV-2. All these suggest that most patients will likely develop immunity, but it's still an open question how protective that immunity is and how long that protection lasts," said Rasmussen in an email, noting that while people can be infected by the same virus twice, they usually will have a different outcome the second time, possibly "due to partial immunity from the first infection."

The WHO on Saturday, however, suggested nations should take care not to assume that recovery makes immunity certain, saying that "Some governments have suggested that the detection of antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, could serve as the basis for an 'immunity passport' or 'risk-free certificate' that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection. There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection."

Speaking to the complex system the body uses to build immunity to past viral infections, the WHO said that as of yet, "no study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 confers immunity to subsequent infection by this virus in humans."

Whether recovery leads to immunity could play a major role in decisions around reopening the U.S. economy. For now, health officials must rely on expanding testing, contact tracing, quarantines and ways to keep people at a distance to prevent spreading the disease. 

When asked by host Chuck Todd on NBC News' "Meet the Press" about states that have reopened already including Georgia, South Carolina and Oklahoma, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said, "Each state is different and the reason we made the guidelines criteria very specific was also -- and I am sure a lot of people have missed the asterisk -- it said not to look only statewide but also county by county. And I have been struck by how different the outbreaks are from the metro regions to the rural regions to the county regions. And that’s why we look at things in a very granular way and governors should be doing the same. Because there are areas of every state that are much more stable and much more spared to this epidemic than other areas of states."

Wallace on Fox asked Mnuchin, however, about what if there were a re-emergence of cases after starting to reopen and how damaging it would be to the economy.

Mnuchin sounded confident testing and antibody testing would help balance disease prevention efforts and restarting the economy to prevent such a resurgence, saying, "I think we're going to be able to monitor this very, very carefully."

This story has been updated, including with statements from Mnuchin on Fox news.