COVID’s US toll passes 60K; Dueling FONOPs; Naval exercise shrinks; Testing lags as states look to reopen; And a bit more.

More than 60,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, far more than any other country in the world, and that grim toll is only expected to rise in the weeks ahead. What’s more, that death toll is incomplete since (1) the pandemic has not passed, and (2) “Cases not initially classified as COVID-19 could be added at a later date,” the Associated Press reports today. But immunity levels and infection rates might be a more useful metric at this point, in places where that information is available. 

These numbers are people, loved ones, fellow Americans — people no longer with us, Calvin Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University, told AP. The New York Times has published a remembrance of “Those We’ve Lost,” a constantly updated series “designed to put names and faces to the numbers.”  

On the optimistic side, one drug is performing well in NIH clinical trials: an experimental antiviral called remdesivir appears to have contributed to measurably shorter recovery times for coronavirus patients, America's top U.S. infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, explained in what Reuters calls a "dramatic" announcement from the Oval Office on Wednesday. “This is really quite important,” Fauci told reporters, comparing the findings to a moment in 1986 “when we were struggling for drugs for HIV and we had nothing.”

“This will be the standard of care,” Fauci said. As a result, Reuters reports the intravenous drugmaker Gilead Sciences Inc. saw its “shares rose more than 5% on Wednesday to close at $83.14.” 

Critical caveat from Reuters: “Interest in remdesivir has been high as there are no approved treatments or preventive vaccines for COVID-19, and doctors are desperate for anything that might alter the course of the disease that attacks the lungs and can shut down other organs in severe cases.”

“I want them to go as quickly as they can,” President Trump said of fast-tracking the authorization process for remdesivir on Wednesday. “We want everything to be safe, but we would like to see very quick approvals, especially with things that work.” More on that from CNBC, here.

DPA alert (for swab acquisition). Also on Wednesday, the Defense Department announced it is investing "$75.5 million in Defense Production Act Title 3 funding to increase swab production by 20 million per month starting in May." The company involved is Maine-based Puritan Medical Products, and they’re expanding to a new facility and plans to add 150 employees.

This appears to be just the second DPA project announced by the Defense Department. The first (April 11) concerned N95 mask production. We later learned a bit more about who was involved with that deal: 3M (with a $76 million contract), O&M Halyward ($29 million) and Honeywell ($27.4 million). 

In good tech news: Online services and apps by Google, Slack, AirTable, and others are being used to help deliver food to folks in need in the NYC area. Vice’s Motherboard has that story of “mutual aid networks,” here

The way some of us live now. From Long Island to Texas, “Frontline doctors forced to isolate themselves from their families are now taking up temporary residence in RVs parked outside their homes,” Reuters reports.

By the way: If anyone you know needs grocery assistance and they live in the  D.C., Virginia, or Maryland area, the Capital Area Food Bank is a very good resource, and for a lot more than just food. For folks outside of the DMV, you can plug in zipcodes here to find your local food bank.

Russians have it bad, too. After months of official suppression of COVID statistics, a picture of the disease’s impact is beginning to emerge. “Now, as social media users are sharing videos of ambulances lined up for miles waiting to deposit patients in overcrowded Moscow hospitals, it’s no longer possible to claim that all is under control,” writes Michael Carpenter in the Washington Post.

What's going on? Defense One’s Patrick Tucker explained last week why Russia is particularly vulnerable to COVID.  

From Defense One

Pentagon’s ‘Willingness to Kiss the President’s Ass’ Worries Top Lawmaker // Katie Bo Williams: ‘I am worried about a culture developing,’ says House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., after the latest delay in Navy captain’s fate.

Boeing Defense to Surpass Commercial Side For First Time In More Than a Decade // Marcus Weisgerber: But that’s no cakewalk as new Air Force One and KC-46 tanker eat into the company’s cash.

Artificial Intelligence Outperforms Human Intel Analysts In This One Key Area // Patrick Tucker: An experiment from the Defense Intelligence Agency shows that AI and humans have different risk tolerances when data is scarce.

Parts of the US Are Trying to Reopen Too Early // Juliette Kayyem, The Atlantic: What will happen now that some Americans seem unwilling to wait for sufficient testing?

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day 45 years ago: the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, a conflict that cost America the lives of 58,220 members of the U.S. military.   

Dueling FONOPs. Chinese and American warships have been busily transiting various waterways over the past few weeks, largely to make the point that they can. Recent freedom-of-navigation operations include:

  • April 10: The U.S. destroyer Barry transits the Taiwan Strait, 
  • April 11: China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier and its strike group sailed eastward through the 155-mile strait separating Okinawa and another Japanese island. 
  • April 24: The Barry again transits the Taiwan Strait.
  • April 26: The Liaoning group sails back westward through the Okinawa strait. (BTW: with the sidelining of USS Theodore Roosevelt, the Leoning is the only active carrier operating in the Pacific, Stripes reports.)

Review the wider stakes of these FONOPs in our podcast episode on the South China Sea from 2019, here.

World’s largest naval exercise shrinks. Thanks to COVID, the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise will drop its amphibious and ashore components, and shrink to three weeks of wargames at sea, USNI News reports. The 2018 version drew ships from 26 navies for three months of events. “Many of these smaller navies invest heavily in the exercise, building entire deployment schedules around getting their forces to Hawaii at the right time for the massive international event. Given the scaled-down nature of this year’s exercise, it is unclear what that will mean for participation,” USNI writes, here.

Army’s volunteer training brigades expand. The U.S. Army officially stood up the 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade at Fort Carson, Colorado, on Tuesday. Its roughly 800 soldiers are slated to replace the 3rd SFAB in Afghanistan this summer. More at Military Times.

Top HASC lawmaker: DoD leaders are acting out of fear that they will upset Trump. “The president has made it clear as far as he is concerned the single most important attribute that anybody in the federal government can have is a willingness to kiss the president’s ass as often as possible,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee told reporters Wednesday morning.
The charge comes as a senior Trump administration official at the Pentagon on Wednesday sent back the Navy’s recommendation on the fate of Capt. Brett Crozier, demanding a deeper investigation into his dismissal from command of the coronavirus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt,” reports Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams. The problem, Smith and others say, “is not that Trump is interfering in the chain of command — exerting what’s known as ‘undue command influence’ on decisions that are meant to be adjudicated within a strict military hierarchy — but that military officials are acting based out of fear that he will.” More, here.

An Israeli cellphone-hacking company is pitching its products as useful in contract tracing. “When law enforcement agencies want to gather evidence locked inside an iPhone, they often turn to hacking software from the Israeli firm Cellebrite. By manually plugging the software into a suspect’s phone, police can break in and determine where the person has gone and whom he or she has met,” Reuters reports. Now the pitch is geared toward figuring out who to quarantine.

And lastly today: a surveillance-company employee used his access to stalk a love interest. “The previously unreported news is a serious abuse of NSO Group's products, which are typically used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The episode also highlights that potent surveillance technology such as NSO's can ultimately be abused by the humans who have access to it,” Motherboard reports.
“There's not [a] real way to protect against it,” a former NSO Group employee said. “The technical people will always have access.” More, here.