WASHINGTON — Booster shots and the origins of the coronavirus were both points of contention Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m not here to evaluate data,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee, said regarding the issue of how health officials will decide whether to approve a booster shot for the COVID-19 vaccines. He added that Israel — which primarily uses the Pfizer vaccine — decided on booster shots for its more vulnerable residents. “I realize that we want accuracy, but do we really have to wait for CDC to complete the data?” he asked. “Do you think you’re going to come to a different conclusion than Israel did?”
“Absolutely not,” replied CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, one of the witnesses at the hearing. “We have to have collaboration across the globe because this is a global problem, so we’ve already had two conversations with Israel. We have data-sharing from our collaboration — from our cohorts, as well as from theirs. We’ve also been in discussions with the U.K. to see what data they have, because of course, they are several weeks ahead of us in the Delta variants. So we intend to leverage all of the data we have around the world to share liberally with other countries, and in the hopes that they will share with us so that we can make the proper decisions here in this country and around the world.”
Burr did not appear satisfied with that answer. “They’ve made a decision to do boosters based upon their data, and we’re saying we’re still going to work [it] out through our research … and that’s where you begin to lose the trust of the American people in our healthcare experts,” he said.
Paul, Fauci Spar Over Virus Origin
Sen Rand Paul, MD (R-Ky.) and Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, got into what has become a now-familiar spat about NIH-funded “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located in the Chinese city where the coronavirus is thought to have originated. Some people have suggested that the virus could have been accidentally leaked from that Wuhan lab.
Paul asserted that Fauci had lied when he appeared before the HELP Committee on May 11 and said that his institution never funded “gain of function” research, which is generally thought to involve making an existing virus into a stronger one so that a cure can be developed for it. Paul mentioned a particular paper written by researchers at the institute — based on NIH-funded research — that Paul said met the NIH definition of gain-of-function research.
“Dr. Fauci, knowing that it is a crime to lie to Congress, do you wish to retract your statement on May 11 where you claimed that the NIH never funded gain-of-function research?” Paul asked.
“Senator Paul, I have never lied before the Congress, and I do not retract that statement,” said Fauci. “This paper that you’re referring to was judged by qualified staff, up and down the chain, as not being gain-of-function. You do not know what you’re talking about, quite frankly.” He later added that “if anybody is lying here, Senator, it is you.”
Unspent Provider Relief Money
Other senators focused on other issues. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) noted that there is still $24 billion left unspent in the Provider Relief Fund. “We’ve been anxiously awaiting — always with the answer that it’s in the works — about assistance and care for facilities that care for our senior populations, and there’s still no answer,” Moran said. “I’d utilize this as an opportunity to try to get more certainty at HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] on the spending of those dollars.”
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) at HHS, said she appreciated “how frustrating it’s probably been not to have the clarity that you and your constituents have been seeking, and we’ll take the comments that you’ve made today and bring them back to the secretary and other parts of HHS and your leadership to make sure that we understand how important it is that this money is moving quickly and that the guidance comes out expeditiously.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) asked O’Connell about replenishing the stockpile of pandemic supplies, adding that she and fellow committee member Sen. Bill Cassidy, MD (R-La.) introduced legislation to strengthen the stockpile and increase use of domestic, rather than foreign, manufacturers.
“This is a place where I intend to spend a lot of time in my new role,” replied O’Connell, who has only been on the job for 3 weeks. “I’m pleased to report that ASPR has spent and invested over $10 billion in supplemental funds to restock the stockpile. We currently have 35 times the number of N95 respirators we had at the beginning of the pandemic; we have 17 times the number of gloves, eight times the number of masks — and of the N95 masks, all 12 contracts are with domestic manufacturers. So we’re beginning to see some progress.”
Reducing Vaccine Waste
When his turn came, Cassidy asked Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD, whether any effort had been made to send vaccines that are about to expire — because they’re in a state with slow vaccine uptake — down to the U.S.-Mexico border to use for incoming undocumented immigrants, or to other places that could use them such as Mexico or Central America.
“We have been advising the states, where they have repositories, to hold on to that vaccine because unlike most medical products you’re used to, we’re making these stability determinations on the fly,” Woodcock said. “We’ve extended the date once already for one of the vaccines, and we may be able to keep extending as there is longer stability observed.”
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) asked about the possibility of reducing vaccine waste by cutting the number of doses per vial and the number of vials in a container. “Experts believe that both of these steps would significantly aid vaccination efforts, as doctors’ offices and community organizations could more easily give interested patients shots without worrying about spoiling additional doses,” she said.
“To do that, we need to get the manufacturers to change how they’re manufacturing the drug and what the storage conditions might be and things like that,” said Woodcock. “And I think heroic efforts are being made to try and get vaccines that could be broken up into smaller groups and stored in, say, a pediatrician’s office refrigerator … Those efforts are arduously going on. They are highly technical, though, and they aren’t simple, and I think the government and the manufacturers are both united in realizing this is necessary.”
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) pleaded with the witnesses to send a message that unifies people of different political persuasions. “A lot of people voted for Donald Trump — a lot of people in the South, a lot of people in my state,” he said. “We can’t be blaming this or that … Unless this administration acknowledges the efforts of the last one, a large part of Americans are going to continue to feel like nothing’s positive, and they’re not going to take the vaccine.”
Fauci agreed with that idea. “I can tell you that no doubt that the former administration deserves a considerable amount of credit for the effort that was put into Operation Warp Speed that was able to allow not only the rapid development and testing, but also the implementation of the vaccine,” he said.
As for a unifying message, “I think what we need to appreciate is that we are dealing with a common enemy, and the common enemy is the virus. The virus doesn’t know if you’re a Republican, Democrat, or Independent; the virus just knows that it makes people ill, and it kills people,” he said. “I would hope the unifying message is, ‘Let’s all pull together and utilize [the] tool, which is vaccination, to really crush that common enemy.'”