- Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn promised lawmakers Tuesday that political pressure would not impact the timeline of coronavirus vaccine development.
- Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, said he is "cautiously optimistic" the U.S. could have a vaccine ready for emergency use by the end of this year or early next — an ambitious goal which, if achieved, would be without precedent.
- Fauci and Hahn's comments came in a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which focused on whether President Donald Trump asked public health officials to slow down COVID-19 testing to limit increases in case counts.
Fauci and Hahn were hopeful the U.S. could have ready a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020, a hyper aggressive timeline the Trump administration hopes to accomplish through "Operation Warp Speed."
Vaccines typically take many years, if not over a decade, to develop. Even if an experimental candidate shows signs of being safe and effective by the end of the year, researchers will know far less than usual about how well it protects against infection and whether it's suitable for use in all age groups.
Public health experts and scientists have also raised concerns that Trump, facing a high-stakes November election, may pressure regulators into approving a vaccine without sufficient supporting evidence.
Hahn pushed back against that possibility on Tuesday, saying "only data will determine when a vaccine and therapeutics go to market" and promising to report any political pressure to oversight groups.
Much of the hearing centered on COVID-19 testing, after the president on Saturday said he had directed officials to slow down testing, sparking criticism.
The U.S. has conducted about 27 million tests, with 6.5% returning positive results, testing czar Brett Giroir testified Tuesday. That total reflects a significant ramp-up, but testing in the U.S. still trails other nations in per capita volume.
"When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people. You're going to find more cases," Trump said Saturday at a campaign rally. "So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.'"
White House officials later defended his remarks as a joke. But Tuesday morning at the White House, the president said "I don't kid" and doubled down on his claim that rising case counts in the U.S. are due to increased testing.
Fauci, Giroir, Hahn and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield each denied they had been directed to impede testing efforts and said they were committed to increasing testing. The White House has a goal to conduct 40 million to 50 million tests a month by the fall.
"To my knowledge, none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing," Fauci said. "We're going to be doing more testing, not less."
More than 2 million Americans have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 to date, and over 120,000 have died. Though every state is in some phase of reopening, 29 states and territories have reported increases in their seven-day averages of new confirmed cases, with the most drastic increases in Arizona, Texas and Florida.
The U.S. is still in the middle of its first wave, officials testified, though there's a very real concern of SARS-CoV-2 circulating alongside the flu in the fall and winter, putting renewed stress on the U.S. healthcare system.
Fauci said the "next couple of weeks are going to be critical," especially as state and local governments face the decision of whether to re-open schools in August and September.