On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing on the development of coronavirus vaccines, with National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and Surgeon General Jerome Adams facing questions about rising concerns that the process is being politicized by the president’s aggressive timeline.
Recent weeks have seen increasing unease over President Donald Trump’s efforts to secure a vaccine before the November election. Last week, CDC Director Robert Redfield sent a letter to states telling them to be prepared to distribute a vaccine by Nov. 1 — just two days before Election Day. And recent controversy over FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn’s use of misleading statistics to tout convalescent plasma treatment has ignited worry that the president’s reelection calculations are superseding scientific rigor.
But both witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing avoided wading into the subject of the president’s politicization of the pandemic. Early in the hearing, Adams said there had been “no politicization of the vaccine process whatsoever,” and later, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren brought up the White House’s interference at scientific agencies and its effect on public trust in the vaccine, Collins only expressed hope that the American people would trust the experts. When asked about the United States’ refusal to participate in the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, which involves the World Health Organization, Collins pointed to existing endeavors like Gavi, a public-private vaccine alliance, to claim that the U.S. is engaged on the global stage.
Despite Trump’s suggestion on Tuesday that a vaccine will be available before Election Day, Collins said that it’s impossible for him or any scientific expert to predict an exact time of release. And during a discussion about the large-scale distribution of a vaccine, Adams said that he was working with non-governmental actors, including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which released recommendations for vaccine distribution late last month. In line with these recommendations, Adams indicated that frontline health workers would be first to receive a vaccine, but did not specify who would be next.
Collins and Adams also indicated that the vaccine will be widely and easily available. When pressed by Sen. Bernie Sanders as to whether the vaccine should be “free of charge for all Americans,” Adams said that both he and the administration were committed to doing as much as they can to ensure that the vaccine imposes no financial burden on any American. (In June, the administration said that the vaccine would be free for all “vulnerable” Americans.)
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