Did a ‘Hot Mic’ at Coronavirus White House Briefing Reveal a COVID-19 Conspiracy?

Claim

"Hot mic" video from a White House coronavirus briefing revealed a far lower "real" case-fatality rate, as well as the existence of a vaccine provided to the government and the press corps (but not you.)

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Not True

Reporting

On April 20 2020, purported “hot mic” footage from a White House coronavirus press briefing appeared and quickly began circulating — involving discussion of what seemed to be fudged case-fatality rate numbers as well as the existence of a vaccine for the well-connected:

When, Where, Who, and What

According to the rumors, a “hot mic” recording the period prior to April 20 2020’s White House coronavirus briefing captured a “very interesting” exchange. One of the two people speaking was Fox News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts.

What’s a Hot Mic?

A “hot mic” in this context is “a microphone which amplifies the remarks of someone who does not know that it is on.”

As such, the exchange in question was interpreted by the above Twitter users as one intended to be private, inadvertently amplified to an audience without the speakers’ awareness the discussion was recorded.

Source for the Video

One of several streams recording the daily White House briefing about COVID-19 — accessible in a lengthy Facebook video — included the exchange. Shorter clips became available, but WPMI‘s clip below included the exchange, roughly twelve minutes in.

Roberts is seen conversing with a man wearing a facemask for several seconds in that clip.

The Man in the Mask on the Coronavirus Hot Mic Video

Per Mediate, the second individual was New York Times photographer Doug Mills.

Coronavirus Hot Mic Video Transcription

Due to the informal nature of the exchange, no formal transcription existed.

However, a forum user endeavored to transcribe the discussion, which began with Roberts addressing Mills’ mask; Mills quipped that “everyone here has been vaccinated anyway”:

You can take off the mask Doug, the base mortality rate’s like point 1 to point 3 according to USC.”

“Is it really? That’s reassuring … Everybody here’s been vaccinated anyway.”

Roberts continued, referencing a recent study with controversial and preliminary findings:

“USC in LA county public health has come out with a study. They found that there’s 7,000 cases in California, but they really believe that there are anywhere between 221,000 to 442,000 people who were infected.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“So that makes it zero point 1 to zero point 3?”

“Yup.”

“Is the study come out < inaudible > ?”

“Yeah, just came in today.”

“So it suggests that the case fatality rate is about of a tenth of what it seems to be.”

“Puts it right in line with the flu.”

“Yeah exactly that’s what it is, the flu.”

“So it’s a hoax!”

“I don’t think it’s a hoax.”

“Ha ha ha.”

“Ha ha ha ha.”

Roberts and the Coronavirus Case-Fatality Rate Study

Incidentally, Roberts tweeted about the same research that day — April 20 2020:

 

Again, the research was preliminary and novel:

By April 7 [2020], 55 (98.2%) of the 56 jurisdictions reporting COVID-19 cases also reported at least one related death (Table); however, approximately half (52.7%) of all deaths (12,757) were reported from three jurisdictions: NYC (4,111), New York (1,378), and New Jersey (1,232) (Figure 3). Other jurisdictions reporting ≥300 deaths included Michigan (845), Louisiana (582), Washington (394), Illinois (380), California (374), Massachusetts (356), and Georgia (351). Case-fatality ratios ranged from 0.7% in Utah to 5.7% in Kentucky.

“Everybody Here’s Been Vaccinated Anyway.”

Perhaps one of the most discussed elements of the viral coronavirus hot mic video was the snippet “everybody here’s been vaccinated anyway,” interpreted as an allusion to a vaccine for COVID-19 available only to the well-connected.

The timeline for an anticipated COVID-19 vaccine is a major part of coronavirus news, and we discussed it on our page about the influential Imperial College London report; that report was published on March 16 2020, and it informed the introduction of “stay at home” or “shelter in place” orders:

Imperial College London’s COVID-19 Report, Explained

That report went into the wait for a vaccine — and why there was any wait at all. Those non-negotiable elements were again discussed in U.S. News and World Report‘s April 7 2020 article, “Why Will It Take So Long for a COVID-19 Vaccine?”

In short, it was in the best interests of everyone that the general public be vaccinated at the earliest moment possible. But the realities of vaccine development meant it would take a significant amount of time to actually produce a vaccine:

Public health officials have been warning that a COVID-19 vaccine will not be available to the public for 12 to 18 months, dampening hopes that there will be a quick end to the global pandemic nightmare.

But Chinese researchers cracked the virus’ genetic code within weeks of its emergence late last year, and two vaccine candidates are already in early human trials — one in China and the other in the United States.

What’s the holdup?

Essentially, you can speed up the vaccine development process to respond to a pandemic, but you don’t want to speed it up so much that you allow a bad vaccine to enter the market, explained Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group.

“The process of developing, testing and licensing a vaccine for widespread population use is designed to be slow, deliberative, peer-reviewed, reflective, evidence-based, so that we don’t make mistakes,” Poland said.

Going too fast could lead to a vaccine that’s not effective or, worse, can cause serious health problems, Poland said.

That means that the vaccine’s early recipients would also be its test subjects — the delay in introducing a new vaccine was safety-related. The wealthy and well-connected might get first crack at a viable vaccine, but a viable vaccine was still months away when Mills and Roberts had their sarcastic exchange.

Further, the well-connected and famous are unlikely to be the same people on which any new COVID-19 vaccine is tested.

White House Coronavirus ‘Hot Mic’ Video, in Summation

On April 20 2020, White House coronavirus pre-briefing streams captured a clearly sarcastic “hot mic” exchange between Roberts (of Fox News) and Mills (a Times photographer); arguably Mills and Roberts were well aware the briefing room was wired and the pair were not exchanging closely-guarded state secrets. Roberts referenced a study about which he also tweeted, but the study in no way altered the known case-fatality rate for COVID-19. Mills’ joke about reporters and White House staffers being “vaccinated anyway” seemed to play to the room and the setting, a quip squarely satirizing COVID-19 conspiracies. In any event, the clip read as a covert conversation captured and disseminated before it could be “scrubbed,” when in actuality it was clearly two journalists employing dark humor during a tongue-in-cheek discussion about a global pandemic.

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