When Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases doctor, testified before Congress a month ago, the U.S. had just set a record with 48,000 new coronavirus cases in a single day.
Now, the country is averaging nearly 65,000 new cases a day. Outbreaks in the South appear to be leveling off, but worrying trends are emerging in the Midwest. And the nationwide death toll recently topped 150,000, a once-unthinkable number that is only going to increase as the pandemic rages on.
But when Fauci and other top health officials testified before Congress on Friday, they struck a hopeful tone on the prospects for a COVID-19 vaccine, faster testing and getting the virus under control, so long as Americans are vigilant about wearing masks and avoiding crowds.
Here are five takeaways from Friday’s hearing before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Response, led by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Fauci appears more optimistic about vaccine prospects
Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was “cautiously optimistic” a vaccine would be approved by the end of the year, and widely distributed throughout 2021.
“There's never a guarantee that you're going to get a safe and effective vaccine, but from everything we've seen now in the animal data, as well as the early human data, we feel cautiously optimistic that we will have a vaccine by the end of this year and as we go into 2021,” Fauci said.
Moderna, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), just launched its phase three trial for a potential COVID-19 vaccine, the phase that will help determine whether it is safe and effective.
There are dozens of vaccine candidates, including five or six that the federal government is involved with, Fauci said. More than 250,000 people have expressed interest in participating in the vaccine trials, he added.
Fauci, who’s a member of the White House coronavirus task force, tried to reassure Democrats that safety wouldn’t be compromised in the race to find an effective vaccine.
“Historically, the [Food and Drug Administration] has based their decisions on science. They will do it this time,” he said.
The federal government is paying billions of dollars to several drug companies to manufacture millions of vaccines before they are proven safe and effective, in hopes of allowing a vaccine to be quickly distributed if approved by the FDA.
Testing delays persist but improvements are coming
Commercial labs have struggled under increased demand for COVID-19 testing created by outbreaks in the South and West. Adm. Brett Giroir, the health official leading the Trump administration’s testing strategy, said a two to three day turnaround time for all test results is not currently possible, raising concerns about the effectiveness of contact tracing.
About 75 percent of test results are coming back within five days, he said.
“If you have to wait multiple days for the result of a test, and the test is done in the context of contact tracing, that in many respects obviates the whole purpose of doing it,” Fauci noted. “Because if you have to wait that long, a person has already been out in the community in that period of time.”
Giroir said the “future” of testing is point-of-care tests that don’t need to be sent to labs and can return results in about 15 minutes.
Expanding point-of-care testing could also reduce the strain at labs, he said.
On Friday, NIH announced it would award contracts to seven companies to scale up manufacturing of point-of-care tests that could “significantly” expand the nation’s testing capacity as early as September.
Fauci pushes back on hydroxychloroquine study touted by Trump
A study that appears to show hydroxychloroquine as an effective COVID-19 treatment is “flawed,” Fauci told an inquiring member of Congress.
The study, conducted by Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, has been promoted by President Trump and conservatives as proof the antimalarial drug can treat the coronavirus.
But the study was non-controlled and retrospective, Fauci said, opening it up to potential bias. Patients also received corticosteroids, which have been proven to reduce death in COVID-19 patients, further clouding the effects of hydroxychloroquine.
“That study is a flawed study,” Fauci said.
When Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) interjected to say the study was peer-reviewed, Fauci replied: “It doesn’t matter. You can peer review something that’s a bad study.”
Studies of hydroxychloroquine that have followed the gold standards in clinical research to reduce bias have shown the drug is not effective at treating COVID-19, Fauci added.
“Every randomized, placebo-controlled trial that has looked at it has shown no efficacy, so I just have to go with the data,” Fauci said. “I don't have any horse in the game one way or the other. I just looked at the data.”
Republicans, CDC voice support for reopening schools
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the top Republican on the committee, sought to bolster Trump’s calls to reopen schools this fall by getting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield on record emphasizing the need to have kids back in classrooms.
“Do you think that schools should safely reopen this fall with in-person learning?” Scalise asked.
“Yes, I think it’s important to realize that it’s in the public health best interest of K-12 students to get back in face-to-face learning,” Redfield replied. “There's really very significant public health consequences of the school closure.”
Scalise added: “I hope that these school systems follow President Trump and these great medical doctors’ guidance and help those kids by safely reopening.”
Some public health experts have criticized the CDC for what they view as a political push by the agency to reopen schools, echoing the wishes of Trump. While experts are all on the same page regarding the importance of opening schools, some note it might not be possible if there is too much transmission in the surrounding community, and if schools do not have the necessary resources to invest in safety measures.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) asked Fauci to respond to Trump’s assertion that children are “almost immune.”
“Do children get infected? Yes, they do,” Fauci responded, adding that “hundreds of thousands” of children have been infected.
Conservatives take combative approach toward Fauci
Conservative Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a close Trump ally, took the most combative approach in questioning Fauci.
Jordan sought to engage Fauci on what some conservatives view as a double standard: progressives and some public health experts supporting limits on public gatherings while at the same time supporting Black Lives Matter protests that bring together thousands of people.
Fauci, however, did not address the protests directly, saying more broadly: "Avoid crowds of any type no matter where you are ... I don't judge one crowd versus another crowd."
While it is hard to know for sure the extent of the effect of the protests on the recent outbreaks, there have not been clear spikes in cases in cities that have held protests.
Jordan nonetheless pressed Fauci to address the demonstrations, asking, "So the protests don't increase the spread of the virus?"
"I didn't say that, you're putting words in my mouth,” Fauci shot back.
Taking a different tack, Scalise got Fauci on record supporting some of Trump’s decisions on the COVID-19 crisis, including banning travelers from China, a move Trump often cites when defending his response.
“Do you agree with that decision?” Scalise asked.
“I do,” Fauci replied.
“Do you think that decision saved lives, Dr. Fauci?” Scalise said.