On August 5 2020, a quote meme was shared to Imgur referencing an Axios interview which August 3 2020, and it quoted United States President Donald Trump as saying that when he “took over … we didn’t even have a test” for COVID-19:
The meme showed Trump sitting on the left and interviewer Jonathan Swan on the right side. Both men had speech bubbles, which read:
Trump: When I took over, we didn’t even have a test.
Swan: Why would you have a test? The virus didn’t exist.
In the body of the Imgur post, the poster added, “This is an actual quote.”
The Axios Interview
Portions of an interview of Trump, conducted by Swan and produced by Axios, went viral after it initially aired on August 3 2020. In a description, Axios explained:
In this episode of “Axios on HBO”, President Trump discusses his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the upcoming election and much more with National Political Correspondent Jonathan Swan.
The interview was filmed on July 28 2020 and clocked in at just under 38 minutes.
On August 3 2020, Rev.com published a full transcript of the Axios interview.
According to the transcript’s timestamps, the exchange began just before the 12-minute mark, when Swan says he wants “to talk about the federal intervention.” Leading up to that moment, Trump and Swan discussed coronavirus testing.
After Swan brings up “federal intervention,” Trump goes back to the topic of testing, maintaining once again that the United States’ COVID-19 case rate is only high because “we test so much.” In response, Swan says he’s aware Trump has made such claims before:
Jonathan Swan: (11:37)
Mr. President, I want to talk about the federal intervention.
President Donald J. Trump: (11:40)
Excuse me. One thing I would say about testing.
Jonathan Swan: (11:42)
President Donald J. Trump: (11:43)
Because we test so much, we show cases. So, we show many, many cases. We show tremendous number of cases. I know you’re smiling when I say that, but I’m telling you.
Jonathan Swan: (11:52)
Well, I mean, I’ve heard you say this.
President Donald J. Trump: (11:54)
I know. Other countries don’t test like we do. So, they don’t show case[s].
Jonathan Swan: (11:58)
Just a couple points on that. I wasn’t going to continue on the testing, but you said it. So, we’re testing so much because it’s spread so far in America. And, when you-
President Donald J. Trump: (12:06)
We’re testing so much because we had the ability to test.
Jonathan Swan: (12:08)
From there, Trump continues advancing his claims about testing. At that point, the exchange in the meme takes place:
President Donald J. Trump: (12:09)
Because we came up with test-
Jonathan Swan: (12:10)
But South Korea-
President Donald J. Trump: (12:11)
Jonathan, we didn’t even have a test. When I took over, we didn’t even have a test. Now, in all fairness-
Jonathan Swan: (12:17)
Why would you have a test?
President Donald J. Trump: (12:21)
There was no test for this-
Jonathan Swan: (12:23)
The virus didn’t exist.
President Donald J. Trump: (12:23)
Excuse me. I was going to say-
Jonathan Swan: (12:23)
President Donald J. Trump: (12:23)
There was no test for this. We didn’t have a test because there was no test.
Jonathan Swan: (12:26)
President Donald J. Trump: (12:27)
And, in a very short order, we got one test. We got another test.
Jonathan Swan: (12:30)
It was broken, the first one.
President Donald J. Trump: (12:31)
We got another. Many of those tests are now obsolete because it’s called science.
Jonathan Swan: (12:34)
President Donald J. Trump: (12:34)
And, all of a sudden, something is better. But, because we tested so many people, 55, 60 million people, very soon, we get cases. You test. Some kid has even just a little runny nose. It’s a case. And then, you report many cases. So, we look like we have more cases than massive countries like China, which by the way, doesn’t report, as you know.
Video of the exchange is embedded on Axios’ site; the exchange roughly matches the timestamps in the transcript.
‘The Virus Didn’t Exist’
In the exchange, Trump references when he “took over” in January 2017, as he refers to his inauguration as president. Swan responds that the virus didn’t exist when Trump “took over,” which is true.
The World Health Organization’s COVID-19 timeline begins on December 31 2019, with the identification of “pneumonia of unknown cause” identified in Wuhan, China:
Pneumonia of unknown cause reported to WHO China Office
31 December 2019
At the close of 2019, the WHO China Country Office was informed of a pneumonia of unknown cause, detected in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, China. According to the authorities, some patients were operating dealers or vendors in the Huanan Seafood market.
Staying in close contact with national authorities, WHO began monitoring the situation and requested further information on the laboratory tests performed and the different diagnoses considered.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 4, 2020
That information was relayed in a January 5 2020 WHO update:
On 31 December 2019, the WHO China Country Office was informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology (unknown cause) detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China. As of 3 January 2020, a total of 44 patients with pneumonia of unknown etiology have been reported to WHO by the national authorities in China. Of the 44 cases reported, 11 are severely ill, while the remaining 33 patients are in stable condition. According to media reports, the concerned market in Wuhan was closed on 1 January 2020 for environmental sanitation and disinfection.
The causal agent has not yet been identified or confirmed. On 1 January 2020, WHO requested further information from national authorities to assess the risk.
National authorities report that all patients are isolated and receiving treatment in Wuhan medical institutions. The clinical signs and symptoms are mainly fever, with a few patients having difficulty in breathing, and chest radiographs showing invasive lesions of both lungs.
At that point, the WHO’s risk assessment was based on limited information on a small cluster of cases:
There is limited information to determine the overall risk of this reported cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology. The reported link to a wholesale fish and live animal market could indicate an exposure link to animals. The symptoms reported among the patients are common to several respiratory diseases, and pneumonia is common in the winter season; however, the occurrence of 44 cases of pneumonia requiring hospitalization clustered in space and time should be handled prudently.
On January 11 and 12 2020, the World Health Organization reported that China shared “the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus, which will be very important for other countries as they develop specific diagnostic kits.” At the time, testing was not yet developed or scaled to a global level.
On January 24 2020, research was used to diagnose Malaysia’s first documented case of COVID-19:
Scientists from China first released information on the viral genome on 11 January 2020. That day the Malaysian Institute for Medical Research (IMR) produced “primers and probes” specific to a SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR test. The IMR’s materials were used to diagnose Malaysia’s first patient on 24 January . BGI Group was one of the first companies to receive emergency use approval from China’s National Medical Products Administration for a nucleic acid test.
In short, SARS-CoV-2 was first reported on December 31 2019, China released sequencing information on January 11 2020, and Malaysia documented testing occurred on January 24 2020. All of these events occurred sequentially following Donald Trump assuming office in January 2017, three years before.
A popular Imgur post purporting to be a “real quote” from an Axios interview, in which Trump says “when I took over, we didn’t even have a test” for COVID-19 is accurate, based on the video and transcript of the July 28 2020 segment. Trump turned the discussion back to testing, and claimed that no test existed when he “took over.” Swan responded by asking why such a test would exist if the virus did not.