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Azar says science will guide vaccine decisions

Health secretary fields questions after Trump's diagnosis with COVID-19 and says his own test was negative

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., speaks as Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar testifies Friday before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., speaks as Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar testifies Friday before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, responding to Democrats’ concerns that President Donald Trump might try to rush out a COVID-19 vaccine before it is ready, told a House panel Friday that science would govern whether his department approves a vaccine.

In Azar’s first testimony on Capitol Hill since February, he told the House’s Coronavirus Crisis Subcommittee that career officials at the Food and Drug Administration, led by Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Director Peter Marks, would decide if a vaccine was safe and effective.

Still, Azar said that other officials, such as himself, bring years of experience to the table that can be useful in the debate over approving a vaccine.

The hearing came hours after President Donald Trump announced early Friday he and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, following the diagnosis of close aide Hope Hicks. Azar said his own test had come back negative.

Azar declined to answer questions about whether he had advised Trump not to hold political rallies during the pandemic or whether Trump had directed him to slow down testing for the virus, saying he would not discuss private conversations.

Before the hearing, Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee released dueling reports evaluating the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. The Democrats’ report outlines 47 cases of political interference with government scientists.

“These incidents have degraded every major facet of the Administration’s public health response, including efforts to provide Americans access to testing and personal protective equipment, develop treatments and vaccines, and provide scientifically sound advice to the public on masks, social distancing, and other steps to stay safe,” the report says.

In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, called Trump’s response to the virus “a failure of historic proportion.”

The Republican report argues that Trump offered an effective, national response, rebutting Democrats’ concerns that Trump left too much to the states to handle on their own.

“Just because you don’t want to read a plan doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan,” said Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the top Republican on the subcommittee. 

Republicans on the panel reiterated their view that Congress should investigate China’s role in the spread of the virus.

Disavowal of controversial agency moves

Azar also told the panel that he did not support emailed statements by former aide Paul Alexander seeking changes in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, which are relied upon for their nonpartisan scientific information. Azar noted that Alexander no longer works for HHS. Alexander was a former senior adviser to Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary of public affairs who recently took medical leave.

“There is a way to have discussion and debate that is proper, respectful, appropriate,” Azar said. “I do not know of any circumstance where anybody other than Dr. Redfield or Dr. Birx would have authority over determining the final publication” of those reports, Azar said, referencing CDC Director Robert Redfield and Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator.

Azar also disagreed with a call by some administration officials to allow the virus to spread in the hope of attaining immunity among the population. Federal officials have estimated that about 70 percent of the public would have to be immune either through infection or vaccination to achieve so-called herd immunity. CDC estimates that roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population has had COVID-19. 

“Herd immunity is not the strategy of the U.S. government with regard to coronavirus,” Azar said, adding that the United States may see slowing of transmission in hard-hit areas. “Our mission is to reduce fatalities, protect the vulnerable, keep coronavirus cases down to the lowest level possibility.”

Azar told the committee that he had ordered a strategic review of an approximately $300 million public relations campaign directed by Caputo meant to promote the administration’s response. The funding was shifted from the CDC. 

“I also have taken steps to ensure that any products coming out of this campaign will be reviewed and approved by career public health officials, including from the CDC.” he said.

The Surgeon General has cut ads to urge people to take appropriate health steps to limit their possible exposure to the virus. The next phase of the program would encourage people to get a flu vaccination and a third part would focus on urging people to get a vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19 if one becomes available.

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