US Health Officials Bemoan Conspiracy Theories Hampering Virus Response

This still from video streamed by the Senate HELP Committee shows Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIAID, pushes back against unscientific assertions made about the Covid-19 virus from Senator Rand Paul during a lengthy hearing Wednesday. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Shooting down a “deep-state” conspiracy theory on the Covid-19 vaccine and eviscerating an unscientific claim that herd immunity lowered virus transmissions in hard-hit New York City were just two items on a packed agenda for public health officials called Wednesday to testify before Congress on the state of the pandemic.

It was a scene reminiscent of earlier hearings hosted by the Republican-controlled Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, fielded curt questions from Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, on the very science underpinning what the nation’s top experts know so far about the novel respiratory virus.

In May when just 80,000 Americans were dead, Paul — who was the first U.S. senator to test positive for Covid-19 — was highly critical of Fauci’s recommendations supporting state shutdowns to limit transmission. Paul said then he did not think the director was the “end-all” expert on how the U.S. should handle the pandemic and ridiculed his positions broadly on immunity.

Five months later and with over 200,000 Americans dead, it was déjà vu as Paul, without scientific evidence to back up his statements, once again criticized the immunologist’s support of state shutdowns.

Saying the staggering death toll would have been “the same” with or without them, Paul asserted infection rates in New York City were only low now because the city of over 8 million reached herd immunity, meaning enough of a population has become infected that transmission significantly slows or ends. 

“How can we possibly be jumping up and down and saying, ‘Oh, Governor Cuomo did a great job!’” Paul said, claiming New York had the highest death rate in the world. 

True to a blunt style the director has exhibited since first taking up the leadership role on the White House’s coronavirus task force, Fauci shot back: “No, you misconstrued that, senator. And you’ve done that repetitively in the past.” 

New York was badly hit, and the state “made some mistakes” at the start of the pandemic, Fauci acknowledged.

He was adamant that herd immunity has nothing to do with the success in reducing transmission.

“If you look at what is going on right now, the things going on in New York to get their test positivity to 1% or less is because they are looking at the guidelines we have put together from the task force … masks, social distancing, outdoors more than indoors, avoiding crowds and washing hands,” Fauci said.

“Or they developed enough community immunity,” Paul interrupted, prompting a quick response from Fauci.

“I challenge that, senator,” Fauci said before asking Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, for more time to respond to Rand.

“Please, sir, I’d like to be able to do this. This happens with Senator Rand all the time,” Fauci said before turning to Paul.

“You are not listening to what the director of the CDC has said. In New York City, it’s about 22% [infected with Covid-19],” Fauci said. “If you believe 22 percent is herd immunity, I believe you’re alone in that.” 

Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn was also put to the task Wednesday of unwinding misinformation on the virus circulating from some of the highest rungs — if not the very highest rung — of the federal government. 

Just ahead of the Republican National Convention in August, and playing up a shared conspiracy theory popular among some members of his base, Trump tagged the FDA administrator in a tweet that was shared over 37,000 times. 

“The deep state, or whoever over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics. Obviously, they are hoping to delay the answer until after November 3. Must focus on speed, and saving lives!” Trump wrote on Aug. 22.

A day later, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said the insinuation was Trump’s way of ensuring the FDA “feel the heat” to develop a vaccine faster.

Senator Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat, asked Hahn to address Trump’s assertion point blank.

“I have 100% confidence in the outstanding doctors, nurses and pharmacists at the FDA who have remarkably stood up during this pandemic to help expedite getting medical products to the American people,” Hahn said. “I have complete confidence in their decisions and actions taken to date.”

Addressing allegations of a “deep-state” conspiracy to slow-walk vaccine development at the FDA for political gain, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told lawmakers Wednesday: “I have been deeply disappointed when people at the Department of Health and Human Services have made comments that there is a deep state down at the CDC.”

The comment appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to former Health and Human Services Department spokesman Michael Caputo.

Caputo took a leave of absence earlier this month after posting a conspiracy-laden rant on Facebook claiming there was a campaign led by “deep state” scientists, the media and politicians to keep Americans sick ahead of the November election. This, Caputo said, was a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances. 

“These are men and women facing the greatest public health crisis of our time. It is offensive to me when I hear this type of comment,” Redfield said. “People don’t understand the ability this has to suck energy out of people working 24/7 when they get unfairly criticized or characterized. That’s the real harm in all this.”

Democratic lawmakers like Senator Patty Murray of Washington pressed Redfield for insight into a series of changes made to official CDC pandemic guidance.

Last month, the CDC quietly removed, without explanation, recommendations that asymptomatic people get tested for Covid-19. Then, last week, the agency updated that guidance, again without explanation. Modifications were made yet again this week, this time revising the agency’s position that Covid-19 can spread through aerosol particles.

Redfield told Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, that the aerosol guidance hadn’t been “technically reviewed” by career officials, and that’s why it was taken down and substituted. New guidance is expected to be issued again soon, he added. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, also broadcast her concerns about another administration official in charge of the nation’s vaccine response: Moncef Slaoui.

Slaoui is the chief scientist of Operation Warp Speed, the White House’s vaccine development taskforce. He is also a former pharmaceutical executive with a $10 million stake in GlaxoSmithKline, the company where he worked for 30 years overseeing vaccine development.

Federal law demands government officials disclose personal holdings and divest from stocks that may be directly related to their government work. When Warren first aired those concerns in July with HHS, the organization said Slaoui was a “consultant,” not a federal official, so the rules were different.

Slaoui agreed to sell $12 million in stocks held with Moderna, another leading vaccine developer for the U.S, and resign from Moderna’s board. But the GSK stocks were for his retirement, he said.

Democrats in the Senate took a closer look at Slaoui’s promise to donate future revenues to the National Institute of Health, finding that any donations would only kick in upon his death and his spouse’s.

“Why does Dr. Slaoui get to play by a different set of rules?” Warren asked FDA chief Hahn. “All due respect, but you have told me conflicts of interest undermine trust in a vaccine, and Dr. Slaoui has conflicts of interest. Too boost public confidence, shouldn’t he eliminate those conflicts?”

Neither Hahn, Fauci, Redfield or Assistant HHS Secretary Admiral Brett Giroir have holdings in companies developing the vaccine.

Hahn said he didn’t have any information about Slaoui’s potential conflicts, if any.

The senator offered a solution by calling on passage of her legislation, the Covid Recovery and Ethics Act, which prohibits, for one, hiring contractors to work on the pandemic response that have financial conflicts of interest.

“If it were passed, then the first person to be fired should be Dr. Slaoui,” Warren said.

A representative from the White House did not immediately respond to request for comment.

On questions of timing around the vaccine, Fauci said by mid- to late 2021, Americans could see wide distribution. But, he added, the federal government is on track to have 700 million doses ready for the United States by April. 

“In November, you’ll probably have maybe 50 million doses available. By December, maybe another 100 million and then you get into January and February. By the time you get to April, it will be about 700 million,” Fauci said. 

Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, pressed the officials on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, ultimately asking whether they would be willing to take the first Covid-19 vaccine “in public view” once it is approved by the FDA. 

To a man, the officials said they would.

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