October 29, 2020

If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that science and politics can be a dangerous brew.

The national press jumped on an Oct. 27 White House press release that, by some lights, claimed victory over the coronavirus. The release, under the banner of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, announced a report on the Trump administration’s accomplishments. The press release described the list as science and technology “wins that changed the world over the past four years.”

At the top of the line-up was “Ending the COVID-19 pandemic.” That could be read as a declaration that the pandemic has ended, and several articles treated it that way.

Politico said, “White House science office takes credit for ‘ending’ pandemic as infections mount.” Forbes wrote, “White House Lists ‘Ending’ Covid-19 Pandemic As Trump Accomplishment.” The Hill said, “White House science office says Trump ended COVID-19 pandemic as US hits record cases.”

There’s no disputing the numbers. The U.S. is seeing record high numbers of cases, with a rising percentage of tests coming back positive and more people needing hospitalization. The trend is dangerous and real.

What is less clear is the origin of the line that set everyone off.

We don’t know where the press release got the phrase “ending the COVID-19 pandemic.” The World Health Organization declared the pandemic in March and has not changed that designation. The words in the White House press release were not in the original report it trumpeted.

The report itself is a dry read about “examples of key actions taken by the White House and federal departments and agencies to accelerate the nation’s science and technology enterprise.”

Unlike the order of accomplishments in the press release, the first section is on developing “industries of the future.” That covers topics such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, quantum computing, and advanced communications networks/5G.

The second section — called health security and innovation — gets at the pandemic. It highlights the billions of dollars in emergency money put towards developing vaccines and drugs to treat COVID-19, but there’s no victory lap language.

We ran a search on the word “ending.” In the entire report it shows up once — in the context of work aimed at “ending the national tragedy of Veteran suicide.”

As a point of grammar, “ending the COVID-19 pandemic” can be read two ways. It could mean that the pandemic is over, which it isn’t. But the phrase could also mean that the country is in the process of ending the pandemic. That’s different.

The money spent on research and testing has provided more tools that hold some promise of beating back the virus. In that light, there have been gains.

It’s reasonable to say that some White House staffer went beyond what the authors of the report wrote, and pushed the envelope in wordsmithing the press release.

It’s not a slam-dunk to say that the White House was asserting “Mission Accomplished.”

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, and is republished here with permission. See the sources for this fact-check here and more of their fact-checks here.

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Jon Greenberg is a senior correspondent with PolitiFact. He was part of the PolitiFact team during the 2012 presidential election and was one of the…
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