By JONATHAN LEMIRE and STEPHEN BRAUN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The $2 trillion legislative package moving through Congress to shore up the U.S. economy devastated by the coronavirus was carefully written to prevent President Donald Trump and his family from profiting from the federal fund. But the fine print reveals that businesses owned by Trump and his family still may be eligible for some assistance.
The massive relief fund, rushed through the Senate and expected to soon be passed by the House, includes language inserted by Democrats that explicitly prevents Trump, who did not divest from his company before taking office, from using the federal money as a windfall for his struggling hotel and country club business.
Ethics groups warn, though, that the 880-page bill contains loopholes in the ethics ban and wording elsewhere could theoretically allow the banned parties to still benefit from the federal giveaways.
After analyzing the massive bill, the DC-based ethics group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said Trump and his family might still benefit from provisions in the package that are aimed more broadly at various parts of the U.S. economy.
“While they still may benefit from parts of this bill, on first read it appears only in ways that would benefit many others,” said CREW spokesman Jordan Libowitz.
Certain hotel owners, including those employing thousands of people, will be eligible for small-business loans, a provision that could potentially help Trump’s company continue to pay wages for his employees. The Trump Organization could also benefit from a $15 billion change to the tax code won by retailers and restaurants.
Six of the Trump Organization’s seven most profitable clubs and hotels are shut down because of restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including the lush Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and hotels in Las Vegas, Ireland and Scotland. Several others, including the hotel in Washington, just a few blocks from the White House, have remained open but with curtailed operations.
Trump turned over control of his business to his adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, when he took office. He did not rule out accepting federal funds for the businesses when pressed about it earlier this week.
“I don’t know,” Trump said. “I just don’t know what the government assistance would be for what I have. I have hotels. Everybody knew I had hotels when I got elected. They knew I was a successful person when I got elected, so it’s one of those things.”
The pandemic comes at a fraught time for the Trump real estate empire. Several properties are losing money while some residential buildings and hotels paying to brand themselves with the Trump name have removed the name because of his politics.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
The hotel industry has been devastated by the slowdown in travel. Many hotels are closed. For the week ending March 21, occupancy rates plummeted 56% to an average of 30%. Last year, occupancy rates averaged near 70%.
The industry was mainly looking for help for small businesses in the stimulus bill. Most U.S. hotels are operated by franchisees, and 33,000 of the 56,000 hotels in the U.S. are classified as small businesses. Those hotels will be eligible for loans from the Small Business Administration. The package also contains $454 billion in loans for larger businesses that have been hurt by the virus.
Moreover, the family real estate firm of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could also benefit from the economic package.
Kushner stepped down from his prior role as CEO but, like Trump, he did not sell off his multi-million dollar investment portfolio, which included investments in the family firm and other holdings partnered with his parents and siblings.
Instead, Kushner has retained passive ownership stakes in his family firm’s interests, which potentially might allow him to sidestep the ethics ban — depending on whether one of those interests seeks federal aid. Under the wording of the legislation’s ethics rules, the ban only kicks in when the affected party retains more than 20% ownership in a stake requesting federal aid from the stimulus.
Some of Kushner’s stakes in his family firm’s interests, according to his most recent 2019 financial disclosure and to a New York Times analysis, appear to be minority holdings below that 20% threshold. Kushner could potentially also benefit from a separate $300 billion stimulus provision aimed at aiding small businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Under the stipulations of the stimulus, eligible companies under that size limit could obtain up to $10 million in forgivable federal loans as long as they retained their workers for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
The AP emailed representatives for Jared Kushner and Kushner Companies, asking about their intentions regarding the stimulus, but did not immediately receive replies.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Dee-Ann Durbin contributed reporting from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
British American Tobacco, the maker of brands including Lucky Strike, Dunhill, Rothmans and Benson & Hedges, has said it has a potential coronavirus vaccine in development using tobacco plants.
BAT has turned the vast resources usually focused on creating products that pose health risks to millions of smokers worldwide to battling the global pandemic.
“If testing goes well, BAT is hopeful that, with the right partners and support from government agencies, between 1m and 3m doses of the vaccine could be manufactured per week, beginning in June,” the company said.
The London-listed company used the announcement to trump the positive aspects of its tobacco empire, saying that “new, fast-growing tobacco plant technology” put it ahead of others trying to develop a vaccine.
“Tobacco plants offer the potential for faster and safer vaccine development compared with conventional methods,” the company said.
BAT said its US biotech subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), has moved to pre-clinical testing and that it will work on the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis.
In 2014, the tobacco firm bought KBP, which has previously worked on a treatment for Ebola. BAT said its work was “potentially safer [than conventional vaccine technology], given that tobacco plants cannot host pathogens which cause human disease”.
BAT said it had engaged with the Food and Drug Administration in the US and the Department for Health and Social Care in the UK to “offer our support and access to our research with the aim of trying to expedite the development of a vaccine for Covid-19”.
Dr David O’Reilly, the director of scientific research at BAT, said: “Vaccine development is challenging and complex work but we believe we have made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology platform, and we stand ready to work with governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against Covid-19.
“KBP has been exploring alternative uses of the tobacco plant for some time. One such alternative use is the development of plant-based vaccines.”
BAT said it had cloned a portion of the genetic sequence of the coronavirus and developed a potential antigen. The antigen was then inserted into tobacco plants for reproduction and, once the plants were harvested, the antigen was purified. It is now undergoing pre-clinical testing.
Almost a fifth of small businesses are at risk of collapsing within the next month as they struggle to secure emergency cash meant to support them through the coronavirus lockdown, according to research by an accountancy network.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has pledged unprecedented aid to companies to try to cushion the blow from much of the economy shutting down but businesses and politicians have raised concerns that there are gaps in the schemes.
Some 18% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) either probably or definitely will not be able to obtain additional cash from the government to survive for a four-week period, according to the Corporate Finance Network.
Its accountancy firm members estimated that almost a third of their 13,000 small-company clients from around the UK would be unable to acquire the cash needed to ride out an extended, three-month lockdown.
Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP who heads the business select committee, wrote to the chancellor on Tuesday outlining concerns with the schemes to support companies.
“The challenge now is getting the money out of the door to support businesses before it’s too late,” she told BBC radio on Wednesday. “There are many businesses who if they don’t quickly access this cash they are going to go under.
“That will have huge consequences for employment and also our ability to grow the economy when this pandemic has passed. If businesses collapse they won’t be able to ensure our economy can recover. They will be lost for ever.”
The banking industry body, UK Finance, has said it is running the schemes in line with the government’s design.
In her letter to Sunak, Reeves said the history of support to the banking sector meant they had to step up. The industry and regulators at the Bank of England have said that banks are well positioned to support the economy through the crisis. The banks on Tuesday night agreed to scrap dividend payouts to shareholders after Bank of England pressure.
“Banks were kept afloat by government and taxpayers during the financial crisis,” Reeves wrote. “I would urge them to play their part in helping small and medium-sized businesses through this crisis.”
One month ago, Chris Austin was running a little-known mom-and-pop business in Texas that fielded a few dozen orders a week for his helmet-style ventilation devices.
He had five employees and a handful of volunteers from the family’s church who would pitch in at the workshop behind their home in the small town of Waxahachie.
Then the coronavirus epidemic hit.
Austin’s company, Sea-Long Medical Systems Inc., is getting thousands of orders every day, from America’s top hospitals to countries as far flung as the United Arab Emirates. Researchers say the device, which costs less than $200, could help hospitals free up ventilators for only the most critically ill coronavirus patients.
“‘Overwhelmed’ doesn’t scratch the surface,” Austin told NBC News.
The demand for the Sea-Long helmet underscores the dire shortage of ventilators in the U.S. and around the globe fueled by a surge in hospital patients suffering from COVID-19.
In the last few weeks, hospitals have been flooded with patients experiencing respiratory problems so severe they need the help of a machine to help them breathe.
Governors have made impassioned pleas for more equipment. Companies like General Motors and Ford have redesigned their assembly lines to produce the lifesaving devices. And hospital executives are scrambling to snap up any equipment that might help ease the escalating crisis playing out inside their facilities.
The Sea-Long device doesn’t look the part of a lifesaving medical device. It resembles a crude spacesuit helmet, with a transparent hood sealed at the neck and two tubes extending from its base. The helmet was originally designed to supply oxygen to patients receiving treatment in hyperbaric chambers.
But doctors in Italy, where a version of the helmet has long been used to treat people experiencing breathing problems, found it to be effective in helping some COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Bhakti Patel, who has been studying the devices for four years, said they hold promise as an early intervention that could spare respiratory patients the need to be put on the more traditional — and costly and invasive — ventilators.
“I would love for there to be a silver bullet for this pandemic,” said Patel, a pulmonologist at the University of Chicago. “My best hope is that the way it changes the game is that maybe it shaves off the number of patients who need a ventilator — even if it’s 1 out of 3 or 1 out of 5.”
“If that is the case,” Patel added, “that would be a game changer when we’re seeing this tidal wave of patients who need a ventilator.”
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Patel led a first-of-its-kind study in 2016 that tested the Sea-Long helmet against an oxygen mask for a group of 83 intensive care patients suffering from acute respiratory distress. The researchers found that the helmet led to superior outcomes: Patients using them required ventilation 18.2 percent of the time, compared to 61.5 percent for the masks, and had a better 90-day survival rate, according to the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The trial was stopped early because the helmets proved more effective than the masks, resulting in a smaller sample size than originally intended. But Patel believes the device could lead to a sea change in intensive care units that have long relied on traditional ventilators. Those devices require doctors to fully sedate patients and insert a tube into their windpipes, a process that can cause pneumonia and other problems when used for extended periods of time.
“If we take away the ventilator — which comes with this package of sedating people, making them not move, making them sort of not have memory of what’s happening — perhaps we could spare some patients some long-term complications,” Patel said.
At $162 apiece, the Sea-Long helmet costs a tiny fraction of the five-figure ventilators.
The original devices were made to run through ventilators. But working with Patel and her mentor, Dr. John Kress, Sea-Long has modified the helmets so they can be hooked up to a hospital’s regular oxygen supply, keeping the ventilators free for those who need them most. They have also made another significant modification, adding a viral filter to prevent possible COVID-19 exposure to others.
This week, the team at the University of Chicago Medical Center used the helmet on one coronavirus patient and has gotten encouraging results, Kress said. The facility has received 20 of an expected 100 helmets and is planning to use them on additional patients, the doctors said.
Other companies make similar ventilator helmets, but Sea-Long’s is the only helmet available in the U.S. that meets requirements of the Food and Drug Administration and has been validated in a clinical study for acute respiratory syndrome. No studies have yet been done, however, examining the effectiveness of the devices in treating COVID-19 patients.
Austin’s team has been working around the clock for the past several weeks. The workforce has at least doubled to more than 10 people, Austin said, and volunteers have been showing up in droves.
“We have people showing up that we don’t even know that say: ‘We’re here to help. What can we do?'” Austin said. “They don’t ask for anything. They don’t expect anything. They just say, ‘Whatever you want me to do, we’ll do it.'”
“It just about brings tears to my eyes,” Austin added.
The attention has led to some other acts of extraordinary generosity.
Austin said he recently got a surprised call from Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides offering to help him produce more devices.
“Chris, I saw what you do, and we want to help,” Whitesides said, according to Austin. “Whatever it takes.”
Austin told him he needed more machines to manufacture the devices but didn’t have the cash to pay for them. Later that day, Austin got a call from his New Jersey-based supplier.
“Somebody just paid your bill,” Austin said he was told. “They’ll be shipping tomorrow.”
With the four additional machines, Sea-Long expects to produce thousands of helmets a week. The goal is to produce 50,000 per week.
“This is the classic sort of American story,” Patel said. “It’s the little engine that could.”
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James Vanderploeg, Virgin Galactic’s chief medical officer, said the company is working with Sea-Long “to help them expand their capacity, helping with recruiting additional people and getting equipment in place and helping with the logistics and so forth — anything we can do to help them expand their throughput.” Virgin Galactic is also modeling potential prototypes for its own design of helmets used for ventilation, Vanderploeg said.
Major U.S. medical centers are now stocking up on the helmets, including Massachusetts General Hospital and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Austin said he’s also received orders from Canada, Mexico and several countries in Europe, including hard-hit Italy.
A Mass General spokesperson said the hospital has ordered five Sea-Long helmets but has not yet received them.
A Penn Health spokesperson confirmed that the hospital has ordered the devices.
With so much of the world in need and so many orders coming in at once, Austin has faced a difficult question: Whom to prioritize?
“We really look at where is the need,” Austin said. “We know New York has a stronger need. We know Boston. We know Chicago. … But we also know that we have to get what we can to Italy.”
For now, the company is shipping only a limited number helmets per order, “because we still can’t afford the volume of a huge order,” he said.
Amid the worsening pandemic, Sea-Long isn’t planning to raise the price in part because it doesn’t want to limit who has access to the devices.
“This probably sounds sappy,” Austin said, “but we think of what if that was our son or daughter or grandfather sitting there in that bed gasping for air and we have to explain to him: ‘I’m sorry. We don’t have anything for you.'”