Four of the country’s top health officials were urged to take more of a leadership role in the national battle against Covid-19 today, as virus rates climb in reopening states and President Donald Trump calls for testing to be cut back.
Asked during a congressional hearing if they agree with the president’s call for a slowdown in testing, Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director, and Robert Redfield, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director, both said they’ve not been asked to do that.
“It’s the opposite,” Fauci said. “We’re going to be doing more testing, not less.” He also said he was “cautiously optimistic” that a vaccine for Covid-19 will be ready by the end of the year.
The hearing comes as the U.S. has recorded 2.3 million cases and more than 120,000 deaths, with rates of infection increasing across states in the South and West that were among the first to reopen. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, said Monday cases there were increasing at “an unacceptable rate.” The state hit a high on Saturday with 4,430 new cases.
Frank Pallone, the Democratic chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, opened the session by urging the health officials to take “more of a leadership role” in the national battle to stem the disease’s advance. He focused in on the Trump rally in Tulsa, saying it was “extremely reckless, and unfortunately it continues the pattern of the president ignoring his public health experts.”
Fauci said in his opening statement that at least one vaccine is set to go into a Phase 3 testing by July, and others would quickly follow. He’s been adamant that the virus’s activity is still in its initial mode, and that the use of masks and social distancing remains important.
Other officials at today’s hearing include Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, and Assistant Health Secretary Brett Giroir.
Joint prepared testimony from the officials said they anticipate coronavirus activity “to continue for some time” and warned that if the virus is still spreading once the annual flu season hits in the fall, it could be a “tremendous burden” on an already stretched health system.
The rise in cases among nearly half of states as the country reopens as well as questions about testing and the potential schedule for a vaccine are bound to be main discussion points as the hearing progresses.
Fauci said in an interview this week that the virus does not appear to be taking a summer break despite comments he made earlier in the year that lung infections tend to slow down in warmer months, a sentiment that has been echoed by President Donald Trump.
Texas’s governor said Monday 9% of tests were coming back positive, up from 4.5% in late May. The state may need to take more measures to control the spread of the virus, Abbott said, though he said another lockdown was a last resort.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is preparing to begin large clinical trials of a vaccine that it’s co-developing with U.S.-based biotechnology company Moderna Inc. next month.
The effort is part of Trump’s Warp Speed plan to get doses to the country this year, though the prepared testimony from the health officials said, “the rigorous clinical testing required to establish vaccine safety and efficacy means that it might take some time for a licensed SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to be available to the general public.”
Until there is a vaccine, they are focused on containing and mitigating the virus, the officials said in their joint statement.
Treatment for Covid-19 has improved in the last few months. Many patients early on were being treated with a malaria drug pushed by Trump called hydroxychloroquine but studies have since shown it isn’t effective against the virus.
The FDA has given emergency authorization to Gilead Sciences Inc.’s remdesivir, which helped shorten patients’ time to recovery, and a study from the University of Oxford recently showed the steroid dexamethasone improves survival in severely ill patients.