The U.S. government's top infectious disease expert told a House committee on Tuesday he believes "it will be when and not if" there will be a COVID-19 vaccine and that he remains "cautiously optimistic" that some will be ready at the end of the year.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has returned to Capitol Hill at a fraught moment in the nation's pandemic response, with coronavirus cases rising in about half the states and political polarization competing for attention with public health recommendations.
Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was joined at the session by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration chief Dr. Stephen Hahn and the head of the U.S. Public Health Service, Adm. Brett Giroir.
There is still no vaccine for COVID-19, and there are no treatments specifically developed for the disease, although the antiviral drug remdesivir has been shown to help some patients, as well as a steroid called dexamethasone, and plasma from patients who have recovered.
While Fauci expressed confidence with respect to vaccine development, both he and Hahn said the U.S. needed to be careful to establish the safety and effectiveness of any potential coronavirus vaccine before rushing into production and distribution.
Fauci said he'd be "very disappointed if we jumped to a conclusion before we know a vaccine was truly safe and effective."
Since Fauci's last appearance at a high-profile hearing more than a month ago, the U.S. has been emerging from weeks of stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. But it's being done in an uneven way, with some states far less cautious than others. A trio of states with Republican governors who are bullish on reopening — Arizona, Florida and Texas — are among those seeing worrisome increases in cases.
"The next couple of weeks are going to be critical in our ability to address those surgings that we're seeing in Florida, in Texas, Arizona and other states," said Fauci.
Fauci and Redfield said that as far as schools reopening in the fall, different jurisdictions will require different solutions depending on the "virus dynamics," and that options such as staggered attendance could be necessary.
WATCH l U.S. situation a 'mixed bag':
"Masks should be worn at all times. You've got to allow faculty and students with underlying conditions to teach or learn from home," he said.
But Oregon's Kurt Schrader, a Democrat, questioned how local jurisdictions already facing a cash crunch as budgets have been decimated by the coronavirus will be able to cope with what he deemed "pie in the sky" public health recommendations.
Trump hasn't ordered reduced testing, his officials say
Trump said at his weekend rally in Tulsa that he had asked administration officials to slow down testing, because too many positive cases are turning up. Many rally goers did not wear masks, and for some that was an act of defiance against what they see as government intrusion. White House officials later tried to walk back Trump's comment on testing, suggesting it wasn't meant to be taken literally.
The chair of the House's energy and committee chair Frank Pallone of New Jersey said during Tuesday's hearing that Trump's testing comment at the rally "was an extremely reckless action, and unfortunately it continues the president's pattern of ignoring the advice of his own public health experts."
Trump, departing the White House for a visit to Arizona on Tuesday, played down those comments, saying under his administration the U.S. is doing more testing than any other country. Trump's trip includes a rally at a megachurch.
All of them said that the White House has not ordered a reduction in testing, despite Trump's comments.
Fauci continues to recognize widespread testing as critical for catching clusters of COVID-19 cases before they turn into full outbreaks in a given community.
About 2.3 million Americans have been sickened in the pandemic, and some 120,000 have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. continues to ramp up testing, with some 27.5 million Americans, or more than 8 per cent of the population, tested thus far. But most communities still lack enough health workers trained in doing contact tracing, the work of identifying people who have had interactions with an infected person. That could make it more difficult to tamp down emerging outbreaks.
Giroir was tapped by the White House to oversee the expansion of coronavirus testing. But he gained notoriety after a whistleblower complaint flagged him for trying to push a malaria drug touted by Trump to treat COVID-19 without conclusive scientific evidence. The FDA has since withdrawn its emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine.
Giroir said the administration has worked with state governments and private sector partners to ramp up domestic production of personal protective equipment for the potential of another round of the virus in the fall.
Single COVID-flu test being developed
Democrat Anna Eshoo of California said she was dismayed that the administration has essentially ended its formal coronavirus briefings — the last one was held in late April — and she urged Redfield to push back against the White House and hold its own news conferences.
"The American people are divided on the issue of the virus — imagine that," said Eshoo, who was participating remotely. "I know the agencies are speaking to each other [but] I consider that a whisper."
In 2009, when a new type of flu virus known at the time as swine flu spread around the world, the CDC held almost daily briefings. Its experts released information on a regular basis to describe the unfolding scientific understanding of the virus and the race for a vaccine.
The federal response to the coronavirus pandemic initially followed a similar pattern, but the agency's guidance on the virus has been overlooked or de-emphasized in recent months, critics say.
Redfield said in prepared remarks that the CDC has developed a single test that can check for coronavirus and flu strains.
"CDC has developed a new laboratory test that checks for three viruses at the same time, two types of influenza viruses [A and B] and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19," he said.
As with many countries, long-term facilities have been hit hard by COVID-19. Nursing home residents make up 0.6 per cent of the U.S. population but have accounted for 35 per cent of coronavirus fatalities, Redifeld said.
With files from CBC News