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Fauci tells lawmakers he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ for COVID-19 vaccine by end of year

Dr. Fauci (The White House/Flickr)

Dr. Anthony Fauci told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday that he is “cautiously optimistic” that a COVID-19 vaccine will be available by late 2020 or early 2021, but warned of “a disturbing surge of infections” in parts of the country that had so far been less affected by the virus.

Fauci, the infectious diseases chief at the National Institutes of Health, and other top health officials donned face masks and appeared in person to field questions from members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on the Trump administration’s response to what Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, called “the challenge of the century.”

The hearing follows controversial statements made by President Donald Trump related to the pandemic at campaign events. Trump held a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday, his first rally in more than three months, amid reports that six campaign staffers working the event had been infected and concerns about the virus spreading beyond the big cities that had been hit the hardest. Trump traveled to Arizona, another state seeing a surge in cases, to visit the southern border and a church on Tuesday.

During the rally Saturday, Trump said he told aides to slow down testing, suggesting that the nationwide increase in testing has made his administration’s response look bad.

“When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more cases,” Trump said . “So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down.’ They test and they test.”

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Public health experts have rejected the idea that an increase in testing alone accounts for the surge in reported cases.

“We’re seeing the positivity rates go up,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said Sunday on CBS. “That’s a clear indication there is now community spread underway, and this isn’t just a function of testing more.”

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president had made the remarks “in jest,” but Tuesday morning Trump told reporters he had been serious.

The committee’s Democratic members largely used their time in the hearing to criticize Trump’s management of the pandemic and his remarks over the weekend. All four witnesses told the lawmakers they had never been asked to slow down testing. Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Health and Human Services Department, said the U.S. is conducting an average of about 500,000 tests per day and estimated that number will increase to 40 million to 50 million tests per month in fall.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., led off the hearing with a nod to Trump’s frequent statements contradicting the guidance of the public health experts on the panel, including Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I’m going to ask you questions about the president’s lack of leadership, and I know it’s hard for you to answer those,” Pallone said. “But I do believe the president is encouraging behaviors that are not consistent with good public health, such as encouraging thousands to attend a rally and not mandate the wearing of masks, and I can’t imagine that NIH or CDC would suggest this as a best practice in the face of this pandemic. So it’s sort of like there’s two versions of reality here: one’s the president’s, and one’s hopefully yours based on data and science.”

Rep. Greg Walden, the committee’s top Republican who represents eastern Oregon, sought to move past Trump’s comments and asked each witness what they needed from Congress in order to combat the virus going forward. They all thanked lawmakers for the emergency spending package Congress approved in March but agreed that the federal government needs more long-term investment to prepare for pandemics.

“We’re going through a terrible ordeal right now,” Fauci said. “We will get through this. This will end, hopefully sooner rather than later, but we need to establish a system so that we’re prepared for future outbreaks.”

McMorris Rodgers touted the Trump administration’s response and asked Fauci and current FDA Commissioner Steven Hahn to elaborate on promising developments in testing and vaccine development.

“I’m confident that there’s no country in the world who’s better equipped to lead for a medical breakthrough than America,” the Spokane Republican said. “To win the future, keep our families healthy and save lives, and to ensure our economy booms again, we must get this right.”

Democrats have been critical of the health experts for not communicating more directly with the public as the pandemic itself has become a divisive, partisan issue. Polls have shown a growing split in how much of a threat Republican and Democratic voters perceive the virus to be. The White House Coronavirus Task Force’s once-daily televised briefings halted in late April, and Fauci and other task force members have since kept a lower profile as Trump has sought to shift the focus to a promised economic recovery.

“The American people are divided on this issue of the virus,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said to Redfield. “Imagine that! So I continue to urge you to speak out. You’re a doctor. Put your white jacket on and speak weekly to the American people. They want to know what’s coming.”

Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, asked Fauci how much the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans could be attributed to institutional racism. Fauci explained that those disparities are due to higher rates of underlying health conditions and working in front-line jobs that expose them to the virus.

“Obviously, the African American community has suffered from racism for a very, very long period of time,” Fauci said, “and I cannot imagine that that has not contributed to the conditions that they find themselves in, economically and otherwise.”

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., asked the panel if the country has enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, for any front-line workers who need it. Giroir estimated that the U.S. will produce 180 million N95 masks per month by fall, more than enough to meet the projected demand of 140 million per month.

Fauci told the committee that having sufficient PPE and increased testing and contact tracing will be critical in the coming months, but that only a vaccine will put an end to the pandemic.

“If you look at the history of viral diseases,” he said, “it is generally vaccines that put the nail in the coffin.”

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© 2020 The Spokesman-Review