Top federal health officials testified before Congress this week, some for the first time, speaking about the current state of vaccine distribution and the federal response to the pandemic. Officials cautioned that challenges are ahead, even as they stressed the importance of vaccination efforts in mitigating the virus’ spread.
On Wednesday, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke about the future of Covid-19 vaccination in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Fauci predicted that there would be enough data by April for the Food and Drug Administration to make a decision about AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate, of which the U.S. has already secured tens of millions of doses. Fauci also predicted that researchers would have enough data about immunizations for children 12 and under by the first quarter of 2022, allowing those inoculations to begin that year.
Fauci was joined at the hearing by Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Peter Marks, the director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA. Walensky talked about the CDC’s guidance for vaccinated individuals, which was released early this month and which Politico reported had initially included a travel section that senior officials opted not to release. Walensky said there were “internal conversations” about travel guidelines, but “those never hit pen to paper. They were conversations among subject-matter experts.”
Fauci, Walensky, and Marks testified before Congress again on Thursday, where they were joined by David Kessler, the chief science officer for the Covid-19 response at the Department of Health and Human Services. They spoke about the federal response in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Fauci emphasized the importance of maintaining public health measures such as distancing and mask-wearing, even as more Americans become vaccinated. He stressed that the spread of coronavirus variants could pose a real risk to the U.S. pandemic recovery, and said the country is locked in a “race” between the ability to vaccinate people and the emergence of new variants. Fauci also cautioned that it is difficult for health officials to make a prediction about when the country will achieve “herd immunity,” the point at which enough people are immune that the virus cannot spread easily.
Kessler echoed Fauci’s concerns about variant spread, saying that Covid-19 vaccine booster shots may be “more likely than not.” Kessler also addressed concerns about pharmaceutical companies profiting from coronavirus vaccines, acknowledging that pharmaceutical contracts for vaccines are usually redacted, with many details hidden from the public, but said the Biden administration will try to improve transparency.
Also on Thursday, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal testified in front of the House Appropriations Committee. Carvajal acknowledged that less than half of federal prison staff have accepted vaccines from the BOP, but said he could not compel staff to take the vaccine. Many incarcerated people, who have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, remain waiting for a shot.
To learn more about congressional oversight of the pandemic response, visit our Oversight Tracker.
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