Fauci: Trump never asked to slow down testing, ‘cautiously optimistic’ about vaccine by 2021

By | June 24, 2020

Dive Brief:

  • Top Trump administration public health officials denied President Donald Trump ever asked them to slow down COVID-19 testing to tamp rising case counts, despite the president’s weekend remarks to the contrary, at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday.
  • The U.S. has conducted more than 27 million tests to date, with a national positivity rate of roughly 6.5%, testing czar Brett Giroir said. That’s about 400,000 to 500,000 tests a day, which represents a significant ramp-up from previous levels but trails other nations in per capita volume.
  • Members of the White House COVID-19 task force Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn also promised political pressure would not impact the timeline of vaccine development for the novel coronavirus. Fauci said he is “cautiously optimistic” the U.S. could have a viable vaccine by the end of this year or early next.

Dive Insight:

On Saturday at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the president said he had directed officials to slow down testing to keep case numbers low, sparking widespread criticism and contradicting his own top health officials who say they’ve hustled to build up U.S. testing capacity.  The virus has infected some 2.3 million Americans and killed more than 121,000 to date.

“When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people. You’re going to find more cases,” Trump said. “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 the misleading claim that rising case counts in the U.S. are solely due to increased testing.

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Fauci, Giroir, Hahn and CDC Director Robert Redfield denied that they’d been directed to impede testing efforts and said they were committed to increasing testing as much as possible. 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.”

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 states like 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 COVID-19 circulating in tandem with the flu in the fall and winter, putting more stress on the beleaguered U.S. healthcare system, though supply shortages shouldn’t be as big of a problem as they were earlier this year.

Fauci characterized the state of the pandemic in the U.S. as a “mixed bag” and 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.

Officials were optimistic on the potential of having a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020, a hyper aggressive timeline the Trump administration hopes to accomplish through a public-private program known as 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.

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Public health experts and scientists have also aired concerns that the president, 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.

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