Dr. Anthony Fauci and others say their agencies will not compromise science in their pursuit of treatments and a vaccine.
As new COVID-19 outbreaks crop up in many parts of the country, heads of agencies leading the federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic stressed they are going to significant lengths to prepare for a large uptick in cases later this year.
Agencies are working to ramp up the production and distribution of personal protective equipment, exponentially increase testing capacity and develop treatments and vaccines, officials told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday. The leaders repeatedly emphasized they will follow the data and science presented by experts, seeking to set aside politically motivated statements from the White House and elsewhere.
Officials described progress under Operation Warp Speed, an initiative jointly led by the departments of Health and Human Services and Defense, to develop and scale up vaccines and other efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The initiative will “try and get diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines done in a way that is coordinated as quickly as possible, without sacrificing scientific integrity,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The group is working on “getting vaccines, when we do get it, to be produced to the level that is needed as well as to be distributed equitably throughout our society.”
All the officials testifying on Tuesday cautioned that there is likely to be a surge of cases in the fall and winter, which will coincide with flu season. They stressed, however, that they will be better prepared this time around. Adm. Brett Giroir, who heads the U.S. Public Health Service within HHS, said the country will be manufacturing 180 million N95 respirators and conducting at least 40 million tests per month by that time. He said the administration must ensure all of that can happen domestically and is aiming for a 60- to 90-day supply of all the equipment the country will need.
“I’m confident that from here on as we ramp domestic manufacturing that we are going to be in a better position than we were three months ago,” Giroir said.
Fauci added the administration is working to build up personal protective equipment, space on hospital beds, access to ventilators and testing capacity.
“All of that is right now being stored up in the national strategic stockpile in preparation for what we hope never occurs but we know might occur,” Fauci said of the equipment and supplies. He later added a fall spike is likely, suggesting “it’s not going to disappear” and that the goal was to drive the numbers down significantly so the country is better equipped for an “inevitable upsurge in cases.”
Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control, put it even more bluntly.
“We are going to experience significant coronavirus infection in the fall and winter,” Redfield said, later adding, “This fall and winter is going to be difficult and we need to prepare for it.”
The officials noted their agencies were taking “financial risks” to expedite the production of a vaccine and equipment, but would not take chances with the science that guides their decision making. The National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies are preparing to put funding behind potential candidates for vaccines even before they are proven effective so they can be manufactured and distributed quickly if they do work, they said.
“Not risks to safety, not risks to the integrity of the science, but financial risks,” Fauci said. He explained he was cautiously optimistic that process would enable the administration to distribute a vaccine to Americans by late 2020 or early 2021.
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said he was putting his trust in the employees at his agency.
“We are not cutting corners with safety,” he said. “FDA has many experts on vaccines who have been doing this for many years.” He added FDA draws clear lines between private sector partners assisting in the race for a vaccine and the agency’s role in approving them. “I can assure you that we will retain our regulatory independence and will use the data and science that come to us,” he said. “We have world-class experts that will continue to maintain that.”
The officials also noted the large investments their agencies have already made. CDC has deployed nearly 1,500 employees to 119 locations across the country, Redfield said, to augment local health departments, engage in contact tracing, staff call centers, conduct public health surveillance and other activities. The Public Health Service has sent nearly 4,500 officers to assist Federal Emergency Management Agency task forces, field hospitals, nursing homes, and other sites, Grior said.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, thanked the agency leaders for highlighting the “military and civilians who are out front and helping us during this crisis. We really appreciate all that they do and we have to ensure that we support them.”
While President Trump has come under fire this week for saying he instructed his administration to slow down coronavirus testing—and said on Tuesday he was not joking about those comments despite insistence from White House officials that he was—all of the agency officials said neither Trump nor anyone else in the administration had ever told them to reduce testing. Giroir and Fauci noted that in the future they hope each test can provide diagnostics for five individuals, meaning that a monthly testing capacity of 40 million would really mean 200 million individuals tested. Such capacity will help expand the administration’s and local government’s surveillance testing, enabling health officials to identify potential outbreaks before they spread.
“We must make decisions based on the data,” Redfield said.