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Why Fauci says a COVID-19 vaccine will be safe, and other takeaways from health expert testimony

In a House hearing Friday on the White House’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said President Donald Trump’s administration has failed to draw up a national strategy to fight the spread of COVID-19.

It’s been six months since the first American died from the coronavirus. This week, as the death toll reached 150,000 in the U.S., the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis heard testimony from the nation’s top public health officials charged with leading the federal government’s response to the pandemic.

Rep. Clyburn, who chairs the subcommittee, said the White House’s response has politicized the pandemic and argued that “public health is not a partisan issue.”

Answering lawmakers’ questions at the hearing Friday were Dr. Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Robert Redfield, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Admiral Brett Giroir, who serves as assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the subcommittee’s ranking member, used the hearing to defend the Trump administration’s pandemic response, and deny that the White House had initially blocked any official from appearing, as Clyburn had suggested in a letter to the White House in which he laid out the need for a national COVID-19 strategy.

Here are some of the highlights from the hearing.

Fauci on vaccine development and trustworthiness

Reiterating earlier statements, Fauci said he was “cautiously optimistic” that a vaccine would be available in 2021. Once that happens, though, he doesn’t think “everybody will be able to get it all at once. It’ll probably be phased in,” he said, adding that a committee is working to determine how to prioritize vaccine distribution early on.

“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,” Fauci said.

When Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., asked if vaccine development has been rushed or compromised, Fauci said no safety steps have been eliminated in the approval process. The NIH is working with private companies to develop a vaccine, he said, and once they have a candidate in place,the Food and Drug Administration will look at the data and use science to vet the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Fauci urged everyone to get vaccinated for COVID-19 to protect themselves as well as others from infection — to stop transmission and prevent future outbreaks. While the process of developing a vaccine has been among the fastest on record, Fauci assured people that the “prudent but rapid” process remained safe while undergoing clinical trials.

In testimony with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., Fauci said he thought an effective coronavirus vaccine “will be shown to be a reality.”

Weighing the safety of group gatherings

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, launched into a tense exchange with Fauci, asking the infectious disease expert if the government should limit demonstrations against police brutality to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Jordan compared such a move to closing houses of worship and businesses during shutdowns and suggested Fauci unequally judged certain activities over others as worthy of government intervention.

In his defense, Fauci said he was “not favoring one crowd versus another crowd.” At one point, Fauci said Jordan was trying to put words in his mouth. He added that any crowded gatherings where people were not wearing face masks posed a risk. “I’m not going to opine on limiting anything. I’m telling you what it is — the danger — and you can make your own conclusion about that.”

Where the U.S. stands on testing capacity

The U.S. has done much to ramp up testing for COVID-19, Giroir said, administering more than 820,000 tests per day, on average. But he said the nation “cannot test our way out of this or any other pandemic,” and urged the need for individual responsibility. That includes the need to wear masks, avoid crowds and practice good hand hygiene, he said.

Lawmakers pressed Giroir about the availability of tests and long wait times. Due to high demand, Giroir said the country cannot guarantee that test results will be available within three days. At one point, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., asked Redfield why Black and brown communities have disproportionately experienced longer lines and wait times for testing and results. Redfield responded that he “was not comfortable supporting that comment” and questioned whether those communities did, in fact, have diminished access to resources. This month, the New York Times sued the CDC to have race and ethnicity data linked to COVID-19 deaths made available.

Fauci shuts down flimsy evidence about COVID-19 treatments

Citing a study he noted had been peer-reviewed, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., said that the use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients had been proven effective, when used with zinc.

Trump has for months touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for people infected with coronavirus, despite the fact that early on, no clinical trials had been completed proving the drug safe and effective. Public health experts, including Fauci himself, publicly warned Trump against making such claims without evidence to support them.

In response to Luetkemeyer, Fauci said the particular study he cited was not controlled and was riddled with “confounding issues” — one being that coronavirus patients who received hydroxychloroquine were simultaneously treated with steroids, which has been shown on its own to improve outcomes for weakened patients.

“That study is a flawed study,” Fauci said. Randomized, placebo-controlled trials remain the gold standard for how to evaluate whether drugs are safe and effective to use, he said, and this study, although it had been peer-reviewed, did not meet that mark.

“I just have to go with the data,” he said. “I don’t have any horse in the game, one way or the other.”

So far, Fauci said no reliable study has concluded that hydroxychloroquine is a safe treatment for COVID-19.