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Photo of Mike Pence praying with US coronavirus taskforce fuels criticism

Mike Pence prays during a meeting with the US Coronavirus Taskforce. Source: White House/D. Myles Cullen

A photo of a specially-appointed coronavirus team praying at the White House has been described as unsettling.

A photo showing Vice President Mike Pence praying with members of the coronavirus taskforce has fuelled criticism about the United State's response to the deadly outbreak.

Mr Pence was put in charge of the US coronavirus taskforce at the end of February amid concerns about mixed messaging from different levels of the government.

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The team was also expanded to include the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, Dr Anthony S. Fauci, and AIDS researcher Dr Robert R. Redfield.

The photo, taken on 26 February was released by the White House, and began circulating on social media on Monday. 

Virologist at Columbia University Dr Angela Rasmussen described the photo of the taskforce praying as unsettling.

"I have yet to attend a scientific meeting that begins with a Christian prayer," she said in a message posted on Twitter.

Co-founder of non-profit women's news website 19thnews, Emily Ramshaw, said the lack of women at the taskforce meetings is also notable.

"This is a critical moment in American policy-making and not a single woman is at the table," she tweeted.

"That’s despite the fact that women are the health care future: They account for the majority of epidemiologists, make up the majority of doctors under 44 and outnumber men at med school."

While evangelist Franklin Graham praised the image as "touching and powerful".

Screening measures announced

The Vice President has been spearheading the government's response to the virus as the death toll rose to six - all in the state of Washington. 

Mr Pence announced a treatment for the disease could be available by the middle of the year, but that a vaccine was farther off.

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He also said the government was moving to screen 100 per cent of passengers flying in from Italy and South Korea, two serious virus hot zones.

Five of the six American fatalities have been from King county, the most populous in Washington state and home to Seattle, a city of more than 700,000 people. The sixth victim was from neighboring Snohomish county, officials said.

Risk of infection is increasing

"The risk for all of us of becoming infected will be increasing," Jeff Duchin, a health officer in King County, said.

"Although most of the cases will be mild or moderate, the infection can cause serious illness and there's a potential for many people to become ill at the same time."

The state reported four new cases, three from the same nursing home, taking the total number of US cases to more than 90 - about half of which were people repatriated from either China or a virus-stricken cruise ship off Japan.

Dow Constantine, the top official in King County, said his office was in talks to purchase a motel in which to place people who required isolation, adding: "We have to move to a new stage in the fight to contain, mitigate and manage this outbreak."

Treatments coming in a few months?

Mr Pence told reporters at the White House that treatments "could literally be available by this summer, or early fall."

He was likely referring to the drug remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed by the pharmaceutical firm Gilead that has already been used to treat one US patient and was moving toward two final stage expansive clinical trials in Asia.

There are numerous vaccines and treatments under development, but remdesivir is the closest to market availability.

Mr Pence added that US pharmaceutical companies had formed a consortium to work together and share information to develop these drugs.

Additional reporting by AFP

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