Burr sold stocks, gave dire warning to private group before coronavirus took off in US

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr sold up to $1.5 million in stocks, including hotel chains, in mid-February weeks before he warned a private group that the coronavirus was “akin to the 1918 pandemic” and warned it to rethink European travel.

The stock sales Feb. 13 were reflected on a financial disclosure form filed with the Senate on Feb. 27, the same day he spoke to members of the Tar Heel Circle, a high-dollar membership organization that is part of the North Carolina State Society of Washington, D.C. ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics first reported the stock sales. NPR first reported Burr’s comments.

Burr, a North Carolina Republican, is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee was receiving daily updates on the coronavirus outbreak by late February, Reuters reported at the time.

“There’s one thing I can tell you about this. It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history. It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic,” Burr told the Tar Heel Circle group on Feb. 27.

Leaked audio

Burr, in a series of tweets on Thursday night, said the event was publicly advertised and widely attended by “many non-members, bipartisan congressional staff and representatives from the governor’s office.” NPR said it received the audio from an attendee at the event. It was not an open media event.

“The message I shared with my constituents is the one public health officials urged all of us to heed as the coronavirus spread increased. Be prepared,” Burr wrote.

“COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving situation. To know if we’ve been successful in stemming it, we have to keep an accurate accounting of our nation’s response. Purposefully misleading listeners for the sake of a ‘narrative,’ like NPR has done, makes us less safe.”

In 1918 and 1919, the Spanish Flu pandemic is estimated to have killed more than 50 million people worldwide and more than 675,000 Americans, according to the CDC. It infected more than 500 million people, about one-third of the world’s population at that time.

There are more than 242,000 coronavirus cases worldwide and have been more than 9,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the pandemic. In North Carolina, more than 100 people have tested positive. There have been no deaths in the state due to the virus.

Voted against insider trading ban for Congress

The stock market has been pummeled in recent weeks with industries most affected by the coronavirus, including in the travel industry, being the hardest hit. Among the stocks Burr sold were hotel chains, according to the disclosure. There were no buys listed on the disclosure form.

The accounts are held by Burr, his wife or jointly, according to ProPublica. The amount sold was between $581,000 and $1.5 million. The exact figure is not known because of the broad reporting categories used on the Senate forms.

“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” his spokesperson said to both publications. “As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy.”

In the audio published by NPR, Burr warns the group’s members and their businesses about traveling to Europe. President Donald Trump’s travel ban to European nations went into effect on March 14 as the outbreak ravaged Italy and other nations.

“Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel, you may have to look at employees and judge whether the trip they are making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video-conferencing. Why risk it?” Burr told the group.

Burr was one of three senators to vote against the STOCK Act, a 2012 bill “that explicitly prevents members of Congress and their staffs from using nonpublic information for insider trading,” according to McClatchy reporting at the time. Burr called the bill “ludicrous” and said existing laws already covered it for all Americans, including members of Congress.

“I disclose all of my financial information every year, and it is available for all the public to see. The very fact that this information is so easily accessible underscores my vote against a bill that wasted ... taxpayer time and money,” Burr said at the time.

Wrote legislation on pandemics

Burr wrote the legislation on how the U.S. is to handle pandemics. The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act, signed into law in 2019, is an update of previous legislation from Burr, which became law in 2006 and was reauthorized in 2013.

“Whether it’s a disease outbreak, natural disaster, or biological attack, it’s essential our nation is prepared to address the ever-growing variety of public health threats and challenges of the 21st century,” Burr said in a statement in 2019. “This legislation ensures our nation is constantly vigilant against these threats and is ready to respond with innovative countermeasures.”

In early February, Burr and Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, wrote a piece for Fox News outlining the steps the government was taking. In the article, they wrote, Americans are “rightfully concerned” about the virus and its rapid spread in China is “alarming.”

“Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress, and the Trump Administration,” they wrote.

At a March 3 Senate hearing, Burr said when he and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy passed their original legislation, “it was with this day in mind that we would be faced with a pandemic and we’re close to that determination.”

At the Senate hearing, Burr hounded officials from the CDC about the lack of testing and lack of surveillance. He also complained about money going to construction and not response.

“Were we better prepared for this happening and it doesn’t seem to be that we were,” Burr said during the hearing.

But never did Burr put his concerns about the virus in such dire terms as he used with the small group nor did he invoke the 1918 pandemic.

The comments to the private group came at a time when there were few known cases in the United States and long before local, state and the federal government made decisions to ban travel from Europe, close schools, limit the number of people at gatherings and shut down a cross-section of businesses including dine-in restaurants and bars to slow the spread of the virus.

On Feb. 26, Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to head the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He also touted the nation’s response and preparedness for the virus. At that point, he said, the U.S. had just 15 cases.

“Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said.