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Top Health Officials Testify Before Senate On The Government's Pandemic Response

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Four top officials responsible for the government's coronavirus pandemic response testified before a Senate committee today. Dr. Anthony Fauci said he remains cautiously optimistic that a safe and effective vaccine is on the horizon, and Democratic lawmakers weighed in with concerns and questions about political interference by the Trump administration.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now to discuss. And, Allison, in recent weeks, there have been several controversial decisions and announcements by the CDC and the FDA that appear to have been influenced by the president. What did lawmakers have to say about this?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, this concern about political pressure has been intensifying over recent months, going back to the president cheerleading hydroxychloroquine, a drug that carries health risks, as a treatment for COVID-19. Add to that the convalescent plasma approval and a kerfuffle over CDC guidelines on testing that were interpreted to recommend limiting testing instead of more testing, which is the medical consensus. So bottom line, Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, said when you put all this together, it points to a pattern of political interference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATTY MURRAY: President Trump is still putting politics ahead of public health. He is still downplaying this crisis when the reality is cases and deaths are still alarmingly high, and yet President Trump is trying to sabotage the work of our scientists for his own political ends.

AUBREY: And she went on to say that she was introducing legislation to try to investigate this. So, clearly, trust is just a big issue here - right? - especially as officials navigate the process to approve a vaccine.

PFEIFFER: Right. And meanwhile, polls show that a number of Americans don't trust the administration's claims about a vaccine. They're concerned about politics...

AUBREY: That's right.

PFEIFFER: ...Coming before science. What did health officials say about that today?

AUBREY: You know, generally, all four of the president's top health advisers at the hearing today - this included Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC director Robert Redfield - all said that they have confidence in the process and the FDA. They say the vaccine approval process will be transparent. Here's FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN HAHN: FDA will not authorize or approve any COVID-19 vaccine before it has met the agency's rigorous expectations for safety and effectiveness. Decisions to authorize or approve any such vaccine or therapeutic will be made by the dedicated career staff at FDA, and science will guide our decisions. FDA will not permit any pressure from anyone to change that.

AUBREY: So decisions made by staff scientists, not politicians. And CDC Director Redfield said he has total confidence - he's ready to get the vaccine personally when it's approved, he said.

PFEIFFER: And, Allison, what is the latest on the timing of a vaccine? Because last week, the president and Dr. Redfield were at odds on this, with the president saying Dr. Redfield was confused about the date. What's the latest?

AUBREY: (Laughter) Right. Sure. Well, Dr. Redfield stood by his comment that it will likely be mid-2021 before there's a vaccine for all Americans. It depends, of course, on the results of the clinical trials, but Redfield estimated it will be sometime between April and July of next year before all Americans can be vaccinated.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.