Members of the White House coronavirus task force, including Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testified before the Senate Health Committee Wednesday on the federal response to the pandemic, where lawmakers grilled them for a vaccine update and clarification on reversed guidelines in fighting the deadly coronavirus.
The hearing comes after the United States reported more than two hundred thousand fatalities due to the infection, as the country continues to lead worldwide in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases.
On Aug. 26, the CDC revised its coronavirus guidelines to note that people who show no apparent symptoms that come into close contact with an infected person may not need to get tested for the virus. Since the start of the pandemic, however, the CDC and top infectious disease experts have pressed the public to get tested when coming in contact with an infected person. The reversal in its guidelines heavily confused Americans.
On Friday, the CDC then changed its guidelines back, emphasizing that anyone who has come into close contact with an infected person should, in fact, get tested.
This week, the CDC also posted and then rescinded its guidance that the virus can be transmitted through aerosol particles.
Although the back-and-forth alterations were widely puzzling, Redfield promised lawmakers that the agency can still be trusted in taming the coronavirus, as new discoveries about the infection keep being uncovered.
“We’re committed to data and science and to give the American public the best public health recommendations we can based on that data and science, and be open, if necessary, if the data and science changes, to modify that guidance based on that new data, but we are committed to data and science and that will be the grounding of how we make these recommendations,” Redfield told the committee.
Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) pinned Redfield on the inconsistent communication from the CDC, questioning the validity in what the agency advises Americans.
“So here is my question to you, if I want the best guidance on the latest science so I can protect myself and my family, can I trust CDC’s website to give me that information?” Murray asked.
“Yes,” Redfield said, stressing that the agency works to serve Americans with the most trusted public health information as possible.
When asked about the aerosol transmission, Redfield noted that the document posted and later removed was “not technically reviewed” by career staff. The document has been replaced with its original guidance until the staff confirms aerosol guidance revelations.
In Fauci’s opening remarks, he cited three “platform candidate vaccines” that have entered phase three clinical trials. These candidates include Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & John’s coronavirus vaccine that began the third phase Wednesday, with the help from Operation Warp Speed, a multiagency effort launched by the White House that accelerates the development and manufacturing of coronavirus vaccines, with a target of providing three hundred million doses to Americans by next year.
AstraZeneca also entered phase three, but has been temporarily paused.
Fauci added that he predicts “by the end of this year,” the country will know if these vaccine contenders are “safe and effective.”
“So as these trials go on, we predict that some time by the end of this year, let’s say November or December, we will know whether or not these are safe and effective,” he said.
“As I mentioned to this committee, we feel cautiously optimistic that we will be able to have a safe and effective vaccine, although there is never a guarantee of that,” Fauci added.
It has been consistently unclear, however, when the vaccine will be widely available to large proportions of the country’s population. While President Donald Trump insisted that “every American” would have a vaccine by April, Redfield contrasted the president’s remarks last week, saying that Americans wouldn’t have major access to a vaccine until six to nine months after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) grants emergency authorization to one.
FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn detailed the approval process, and Fauci added that the vaccine won’t become widely available until “maybe the third or fourth month of 2021, then you’ll have doses for everyone.” Fauci assured that frontline health care workers and most vulnerable groups will likely be the first to take the vaccine.
Amid backlash from Democrats that political pressure from Trump’s administration could be pushing the FDA to authorize a coronavirus vaccine before the election that’s six weeks away, Hahn rejected those claims and assured lawmakers that the, “FDA will not authorize or approve a vaccine that we would not feel comfortable giving to our families.”
“Decisions to authorize or approve any such vaccine or therapeutic will be made by the dedicated career staff at FDA through our thorough review processes, and science will guide our decisions,” Hahn told the committee.
“FDA will not permit any pressure from anyone to change that. I will fight for science . . . I will fight for the integrity of the agency, and I will put the interests of the American people before anything else,” Hahn said.
Severity of the Coronavirus
Members of the White House coronavirus task force also provided an overview of the seriousness of the virus, as Redfield told senators that the CDC is currently conducting a large study, measuring how intensely the virus has spread across the country.
The preliminary data indicated that “more than 90% of the population remains susceptible,” according to Redfield.
Fauci also covered “long haulers,” or those that still experience symptoms of the virus for months after, even though they’ve “virologically” shaken off the infection.
“A number of individuals, who virologically have recovered from infection, in fact, have persistence—measured in weeks to months—of symptomatology that does not appear to be due to persistence of the virus,” Fauci said.
Since the scope of the infection is so complicated, Fauci stressed that public health experts are working to “understand the nature of this illness.”
As the country awaits an approved coronavirus vaccine, the witnesses emphasized basic mask-wearing, social distancing and hand sanitizing efforts to be practiced.
Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.