On Wednesday morning, leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and other members of the White House coronavirus task force testified before a Senate subcommittee on the Trump administration's coronavirus response. The hearing took place amid the grim news that 200,000 American lives have now been lost to the novel coronavirus and the country leads the world in total cases, with over 6.9 million infected.
Fauci, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Adm. Brett Giroir, and Stephen Hahn, Commissioner Of Food And Drugs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), addressed concerns about vaccine development, upcoming flu season, and more at the hearing. Here are the major points discussed and takeaways from their testimony during the hearing.
1. CDC guidance changes were misinterpreted, Redfield claims
There have been a handful of controversial guidance changes from the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) over the last few weeks. For example, at the end of August, the CDC stopped recommending testing for asymptomatic people, a change that came as a surprise to health experts. CNN reported that the change came about as a result of pressure from the Trump administration. Last week, the CDC updated its guidance once again, stating that anyone exposed to an infected person for more than 15 minutes needs a test.
At the hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) grilled Redfield, inquiring whether political interference threatened the federal response to the pandemic.
"So here is my question to you, if I want the best guidance on the latest science so I can protect myself and my family, can I trust CDC's website to give me that information?" Murray asked.
Redfield responded by saying "yes," and defended instances in which the agency modified its guidance.
"We're committed to data and science and to give the American public the best public health recommendations we can based on that data and science, and be open, if necessary, if the data and science changes, to modify that guidance based on that new data . . . but we are committed to data and science and that will be the grounding of how we make these recommendations," Redfield told the committee.
Redfield added that he believes the reversal was misinterpreted.
"It became progressively apparent that the guidelines were not interpreted in the manner in which we had intended them to be interpreted, and that's what led me to realize that we had to put out a clarification to make it explicitly clear that we believe very much that asymptomatic transmission is an important part of the transmission cycle of this virus," Redfield told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
2. We need to monitor those who experience long-term side effects from COVID-19, Fauci says
Health experts are concerned about the long-term effects of COVID-19 among those who have been dubbed "long-haulers," Fauci explained, referring to patients who struggle with side effects for weeks or months after the virus clears their body.
"A number of individuals, who virologically have recovered from infection, in fact, have persistence — measured in weeks to months — of symptomatology that does not appear to be due to persistence of the virus," Fauci said.
As Salon has previously reported, the nature of COVID-19 as a cardiovascular disease means that it often affects one's heart, even in those that have less pronounced symptoms. A COVID-19-positive football player at Indiana University was reported to be suffering from heart issues, along with a University of Houston defensive lineman who reported "heart complications related to COVID-19."
At the Wednesday hearing, Fauci said "we need to be careful" about the potential long-term health effects.
"I think we need to be careful and just watch what happens because one of the possibilities that could develop, is that a) it could clear up, and they have no problem for the rest of their lives," Fauci said. "The other thing is that they could wind up when you have inflammation, you could have scarring, that could lead to arrhythmias later on."
"It's something we really need to keep our eye out on," Fauci said.
3. There are three vaccine candidates in phase three trials, Fauci says
And "very soon there will be a fourth," Fauci added.
"So as these trials go on, we predict that some time by the end of this year, let's say November or December, we will know whether or not these are safe and effective and as you mentioned, Mr. Chairman, right now doses of this vaccine are being produced so that they'll be ready to be distributed," Fauci explained.
Fauci was referring to vaccines being created by Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and the AstraZeneca trials (although the AstraZeneca trial is currently on hold). On Wednesday Johnson & Johnson announced that its COVID-19 vaccine, which is a single dose unlike the candidates by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, entered its phase 3 trial and will test up to 60,000 adult participants.
Once a vaccine is approved, healthcare providers and those who are most vulnerable will be prioritized, as Fauci has previously said.
"We're not going to have all of the doses available, for example, by the end of December, they will be rolling in as the months go by," Fauci said. "By the time you get to maybe the third or fourth month of 2021, then you'll have doses for everyone."
4. But there are many unknowns about the vaccine, Fauci says
But will the vaccine be a one and done, like the polio vaccine? Or will it be something taken seasonally, like the flu vaccine? These are answers we still don't have, Fauci says, since we don't know how effective the vaccines are at the moment.
"That's one of the things that we will learn," Fauci said. "Polio is a highly, highly effective vaccine that gives long lasting protection. . . what we do not know yet is how effective the COVID-19 vaccine will be, nor do we know the durability of the protection, or how long it will last. We will find out the answer to those questions through the clinical trials and the follow-up of the clinical trials."
Fauci added that the length of immune protection may vary depending on the vaccine, too. Moreover, Fauci clarified that receiving a vaccine doesn't give you COVID-19.
"That would be impossible," Fauci said.
5. Fauci says flu shots are important this year
The United States is nearing flu season amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Fauci raised concerns about the two intersecting during this fall and winter. He urged Americans to get flu vaccines.
"What we don't want is two conflated respiratory infections at the same time as we enter into the fall and the winter," Fauci said. " We want to get as many people vaccinated with the flu vaccine as possible."
Fauci added that preventative measures for COVID-19 — things like mask wearing, washing hands and social distancing — are likely to have a positive effect on flu rates this year, too.
"If we do that as we get into the fall in the winter for the purpose of COVID-19, it is likely to have a positive impact on the infection rate of influenza," Fauci said.