It was a busy day for Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who appeared on Capitol Hill today to take questions from lawmakers on a range of different topics, including a possible vaccine, reopening schools, and the controversial drug known as hydroxychloroquine.
The back-and-forth lasted just over three hours. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, was also in attendance, as well as Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Here are some of the main takeaways from the hearing:
Phasing in a Vaccine
One of the biggest topics up for discussion was the eventual vaccine timeline. Dr. Fauci said he remains “cautiously optimistic” that the U.S. will have a working drug by the end of the year for distribution throughout 2021. He stated that committees will oversee prioritization and decide who gets the vaccine first. He also said the vaccine will need to go out in phases, with front line workers, healthcare providers, and other essential employees likely being first in line. “But ultimately, within a reasonable period of time, the plans now allow for any American who needs a vaccine to get it within the year 2021.”
In a bit of good news, he said over 30,000 people have already enrolled in Phase 3 of a clinical trial here in the U.S., a promising sign that progress is moving along as expected.
Making Sense of Recent Outbreaks
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases keeps climbing across much of the U.S., making it the global epicenter of the pandemic. However, in a recent tweet, the president suggested that the U.S. is leading Europe in terms of cases due to an increase in testing.
The notion that more testing leads to more cases is inaccurate. Dr. Fauci was quick to push back against this theory. He said there are several reasons why we are seeing a rise in cases, including the fact that some states reopened too quickly.
“I stand by my previous statement that the increase in cases was due to a number of factors, one of which was that in the attempt to reopen, that in some situations, states did not abide strictly by the guidelines that the task force and the White House had put out and others that even did abide by it, the people in the state actually were congregating in crowds and not wearing masks,” Fauci said.
He also pointed to the percentage of people that are testing positive for the virus, which is as high as 25% in some counties. This tells us that the virus is spreading more quickly than it was just a few months ago, regardless of testing.
Fighting Back Against Hydroxychloroquine
A viral video of doctors promoting the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the coronavirus raised a lot of eyebrows this week. It featured misleading information about the pandemic and was quickly removed from social media for violating user guidelines.
President Trump continues to promote and praise the drug, even though several studies have shown it can lead to heart problems and other serious side effects.
One lawmaker asked Dr. Fauci about a recent peer-reviewed study of the drug from the Henry Ford Health System that showed it can actually save lives; the infectious disease doctor said the study was “flawed.” He points out the patients featured in the study were given both hydroxychloroquine and corticosteroids, which have shown to reduce deaths associated with chronic disease.
He ended with, “So that study is a flawed study, and I think anyone who examines it carefully, [will see] that it is not a randomized placebo-controlled trial,” Fauci explained.
The lawmaker replied that the study was peer-reviewed, but Dr. Fauci wasn’t having it. “It doesn’t matter. You can peer review something that’s a bad study, but the fact is, it is not a randomized placebo-controlled trial.”
What About Large Protests?
Some lawmakers in attendance were concerned that recent mass protests could lead to the spread of the virus. Representative Jim Jordan from Ohio asked Dr. Fauci if the government should limit these protests in the interest of public safety.
However, Dr. Fauci made it clear that it’s not his call to make. “I’m not in a position to determine what the government can do in a forceful way.”
The infectious disease expert refused to side one way or another when it comes to protests. He ended with, “I’m not gonna opine on limiting anything. I’m telling [you] what the danger is. And you can make your own conclusion about that. You should stay away from crowds, no matter where the crowds are.”
Back to School?
CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield took questions on whether the U.S. should reopen schools this fall. He made it clear that a return to in-person learning is in the best interest of the students. Health experts urged caution and flexibility in letting schools decide what’s best for their kids.
Dr. Redfield pointed out that around 7.1 million children receive mental health counseling at school, as well as nutritional support and free meals.
“It’s really important to realize it’s not public health versus the economy about school opening, it’s public health versus public health of the K-through-12 to get the schools open. We’ve got to do it safely and we have to be able to accommodate,” Redfield added.
Dr. Fauci and his colleagues did their best to paint a clear picture of where we go from here, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions lingering in the air. Follow along as we continue to monitor the U.S. response to the pandemic.