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Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman March 13, 2020

Fact-checking Trump campaign claim on Biden’s 2009 swine flu comments

If Your Time is short

  • During the 2009 swine flu outbreak, Biden said he would advise his family against traveling in confined places and said when one person sneezes “it goes all the way through an aircraft.” Scientists say that’s not how germs spread.

  • Biden’s comments were met with backlash and his spokesperson issued a clarification.

  • The Obama administration did not issue a formal apology about his comments.

President Donald Trump’s answer to criticism of the U.S. coronavirus response is partly that Joe Biden wouldn’t do any better.

Trump points, sometimes wrongly, to Obama-era history, when Joe Biden was the new vice president and the country was dealing with swine flu. 

On Twitter, an account managed by Trump’s campaign went on the defensive with an attack on Biden’s handling of the H1N1 virus, just hours before Biden announced what he thought the Trump administration should be doing.

That March 12 tweet from @TrumpWarRoom says: "Joe Biden will again politicize coronavirus today. But his record on pandemics is one of incompetence. During the 2009 swine flu outbreak, Biden made reckless comments unsupported by science & the experts. The Obama Admin had to clean up his mess & apologize for his ineptitude."

Biden’s statement had to do with the way germs travel through an aircraft. We fact-checked his statement and rated it Pants on Fire back in 2009. 

We decided to take a fresh look at the Trump team’s tweet in 2020.

What Biden said

The swine flu epidemic, or H1N1, was detected in the U.S. in April 2009. The first cases were found in Mexico before rapidly spreading around the world. The U.S. declared a public health emergency on April 26, and President Barack Obama upped that to a national emergency in late October. 

Biden went on the Today Show on April 30, 2009, to talk about the outbreak.

Then-host Matt Lauer asked Biden, "If a member of your family came to you and said, 'Look, I want to go on a commercial airliner to Mexico and back,' within the next week, would you think it's a good idea?"

Biden said he would tell them not to be in a confined place, and he gave his reason.

"It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in a confined aircraft," Biden said. "When one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft."

He said he would not suggest taking the subway, either. "If you're out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that's one thing; if you're in a closed aircraft or closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it's a different thing."

Biden’s comment drew criticism over fear-mongering, particularly from the travel industry, and experts told us Biden got it wrong.

In our 2009 fact-check, we consulted Dr. Tony Overfelt from Auburn University’s National Air Transportation Center, which specializes in studying aircraft environment. At the time, Overfelt said that the air in a commercial jet flows from vents above passengers' heads to vents in the floor at their feet. That airflow sends particles down to the floor and into the aircraft's filtration system.

The particles from a sneeze "might travel a row or a couple of rows or something like that," Overfelt said. "They're really not going to travel up and down the airplane as our vice president said." 

How the administration responded

The tweet said the Obama administration had to "clean up" Biden’s mess and "apologize for his ineptitude."

There was cleanup, including a half-hearted apology if anyone was "unduly alarmed."

A spokesperson for Biden’s office released a statement hours later to clarify what he said. They said Biden’s advice lined up with the administration’s: that people should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. 

"If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways," the statement said. "This is the advice the vice president has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week."

Biden’s presidential campaign declined to comment.

As shown in the Trump Warm Room tweet, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responded to Biden’s remark in the White House briefing.

"I think what the vice president meant to say was the same thing that, again, many members have said in the last few days, and that is, if you feel sick, if you are exhibiting symptoms, flu-like symptoms — coughing, sneezing, runny nose — that you should take precautions, that you should limit your travel," Gibbs said on April 30.

A reporter then says that wasn’t "remotely close" to what Biden said, to which Gibbs responded: 

"I understand what he said and I'm telling you what he meant to say ... Obviously if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that and I hope that my remarks and remarks of the people of the CDC and Secretary Napolitano have appropriately cleared up what he meant to say."

Our ruling

A Twitter account run by the Trump campaign tweeted that, during the 2009 swine flu outbreak, Biden made "reckless comments" unsupported by science and the Obama Administration had to clean up the mess and apologize for it. 

During a television interview, Biden said he would advise his family not to travel in confined places, and claimed that when one person sneezes "it goes all the way through an aircraft."

His comments were met with backlash for inducing fear, and his spokesperson issued a statement to clarify his words. Experts said the statement on how germs travel was inaccurate.

The claim is accurate but needs clarification or additional information. We rate it Mostly True.

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Fact-checking Trump campaign claim on Biden’s 2009 swine flu comments

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