National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist, told members of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis that the U.S. might see an effective vaccine by later this year, and encouraged Americans to register if they are interested in participating in clinical trials.
Fauci appeared alongside Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director (CDC) Dr. Robert Redfield and “testing czar” Admiral Brett Giroir, a Health and Human Services official and physician. The hearing was titled “The Urgent Need for a National Plan to Contain the Coronavirus.”
One vaccine, Fauci said, was in a “phase 3 trial.” He said experts are optimistic by late fall or early winter “we will have, in fact, a vaccine we can say will be safe and effective.” Fauci added: “[w]e are cautiously optimistic that this will be successful” because the vaccine “clearly showed that individuals who were vaccinated mounted a neutralizing antibody response that was at least comparable, and in many respects better, than what we see… from individuals who have recovered from COVID-19.”
He encouraged people to go to “coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org,” where those willing to be in the clinical trials for the vaccine for “this terrible scourge” can volunteer. There were 250,000 people who indicated they were interested as of Thursday night, Fauci said.
Fauci appeared in a Washington Nationals “World Champions” mask.
The epidemiologist also discussed the NIAID’s efforts to research the coronavirus, study how the virus affects children, improve testing, and develop treatments. Remdesivir, Fauci said, “showed a statistically significant improvement” in how long hospitalized patients survived, and one other drug, he said, lowered death rates.
On schools, Redfield called the decision to reopen schools “public health vs. public health,” underscoring the difficult balance faced by officials deciding how — or whether — to reopen schools this fall.
The written testimony by the experts also addressed the effort to secure a vaccine: “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, but there is growing optimism that one or more of these vaccine candidates will prove safe and effective by late 2020 or early 2021.”
After a vaccine is proven effective, the challenge will be distributing it widely among the public.
When asked why the U.S. has been hit so much harder by the virus in recent months than other countries, Fauci partially blamed what some states have done in reopening too quickly.
“We started off with a very difficult baseline of transmission that was going on at the time we tried to open up the country. And when we opened up the country,” he said. “The reasons for that are complex. There are some states that did it very well and there are some states that did not. And when I say did not I mean we put out… the guidelines of a gateway phase one, phase two, phase three, some were followed very carefully and some were not. And those situations in which it were not, that led to the surging that you’re showing on your chart there.”
The prepared testimony by the health experts expressed concern about the possible confluence of coronavirus and the flu at the same time, potentially presenting challenges to efforts to reopen schools.
“If there is COVID-19 and flu activity at the same time, this could place a tremendous burden on the health care system related to bed occupancy, laboratory testing needs, personal protective equipment and health care worker safety,” their prepared testimony said.
There was also some political posturing by the top members of the committee, with Democrats slamming the Trump administration’s coronavirus response and Republicans defending the president.
“On our current course, experts predict another 150,000 Americans could lose their lives” to the virus by the end of 2020, committee Chairman Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said. “The administration has failed on testing, while they were given warnings including from this committee, that millions more tests were needed.”
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., walks to a closed Democratic Caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. Clyburn chairs the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Clyburn added that “the White House pressured” the CDC to change its advice that opening schools in-person presented significant dangers. “The United States coronavirus response stands out among the worst of any country in the world,” Clyburn said.
“Urgent need for a plan — that’s not a title of a hearing that’s a political narrative, and a false political narrative,” committee Ranking Member Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said. He held up a large stack of papers produced by the Trump administration on responding to the coronavirus.
In defending the president, Scalise asked Fauci about a number of measures taken by the administration to contain the virus — including shutting down travel from China early in the pandemic. In response, Fauci said that he agreed with the decisions and that he believed they saved lives.
Scalise also slammed some Democratic governors who have been criticized for allowing coronavirus positive patients to enter nursing homes. “If all governors would have followed those guidelines, thousands more seniors in nursing homes would have been alive today, if just five governors followed your plan that was developed by President Trump,” he said.
Scalise further criticized China over its efforts to coverup the breakout of the disease in its early stages this year and warned about “damage” to children when schools don’t reopen.
Rep. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., center, together with other Republican members of Congress, speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House following a meeting with President Donald TrumpTuesday, March 26, 2019. Scalise is the ranking member on the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Redfield, in his opening statement, said public health experts are working to close disparities in how the coronavirus affects different communities — it has hit African Americans a lot harder than other races, especially White people.
“This is the most complex public health response this nation has undertaken in more than a century. This virus is indiscriminate regarding whom and when it strikes. We can continue to learn its characteristics, its behavior and its effect on Americans across the social-economic spectrum,” Redfield said.
“I want to strongly emphasize that we are not defenseless now. We have powerful tools,” Redfield said.
Among them, Redfield said, are “wearing a simple mask, properly. It’s critical to limiting the transmission. Be smart about social distancing and being in crowded spaces. Stay six feet apart from others if possible and be vigilant about hand hygiene.”
He added: “Together, we can turn the tide of this pandemic.”
Fauci’s appearance before the committee comes after he was blocked by the White House from appearing in early May. The White House called such a testimony “counterproductive” in the heat of the pandemic, but allowed him to testify before Senate committees.
“The House is a setup,” Trump told reporters in May. “The House is a bunch of Trump haters. They put every Trump hater on the committee. The same old stuff. They, frankly, want our situation to be unsuccessful, which means death.”
Fox News’ Morgan Phillips contributed to this report.