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Federal Officials Provide COVID-19 Update to Senate HELP Committee

May 14, 2021

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CONTACTS
Christa Wagner, Senior Legislative Analyst

Federal health and science agency officials testified May 11 on the COVID-19 response before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Committee members sought feedback on several issues including research efforts into long COVID, viral sequencing, testing, vaccines, and mask guidance.

Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) inquired about the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) research efforts to address lingering effects of COVID-19, or long COVID.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci, MD, discussed Congress’s $1.15 billion investment in the NIH to better understand long-term COVID-19 symptoms. Fauci highlighted an ongoing multi-institute effort led by his institute and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, and the National Institute of Mental Health, as well as NIH’s recent request for applications to develop cohort studies. Fauci’s update follows his participation in an April 28 House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing focused on long COVID [refer to Washington Highlights, April 30].

Kaine also addressed the mental health impacts of health care providers who have been on the frontline of the pandemic, noting the inclusion of portions of the AAMC-supported Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act in the American Rescue Plan [refer to Washington Highlights, March 12]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, noted that two CDC programs are actively collaborating to “create mechanisms and support tools to do outreach” to health care professionals to address their own mental and behavioral health concerns.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) addressed viral sequencing capacity, following the passage of $1.75 billion for sequencing in the American Rescue Plan (P.L. 117-2) and subsequent announcement from the administration on short- and long-term initiatives to utilize the funds [refer to Washington Highlights, April 30].

"We are now sequencing about 35,000 virus samples per week. That is a broad collaboration with commercial labs, with public health labs, with academic partners,” Walensky stated. This is up from 3,000 samples sequenced per week in January.

In looking to the future, Walensky added, “I'm looking forward to bolstering the infrastructure to be able to do these sequences at the local level, to producing the infrastructure within CDC … to expand our ability and our workforce in genomic sequencing, in analytics, in bioinformatics to be able to not just address COVID-19 but these are longstanding things that we are going to need to address antimicrobial resistance and other infectious threats.”

Committee members also questioned Walensky about the agency’s pandemic-related guidance related to mask-wearing, school reopening, and outdoor transmission of the virus. Several Republican members including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) noted frustration with guidance they described as “conflicting and confusing,” and undermining public confidence in the agency.

Members also addressed vaccinations, the new Food and Drug Administration approval allowing adolescents ages 12-15 to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and the possible need for booster shots. Chief Science Officer for the COVID Response David Kessler, MD, noted over 260 million vaccine doses have been administered to date, and that the government has sufficient funds as provided by Congress to purchase additional vaccines “to assure that if there are boosters, they are free.”

Regarding the country’s efforts to reduce disease burden globally, Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) noted concern in his opening statement about the Biden administration’s decision to support waiving of intellectual property rights of vaccine manufacturers in an effort to increase vaccine supply.

“The partnerships developing and manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccines have been one of the biggest scientific success stories in generations,” Burr stated. “There is a way to support the manufacturing of vaccines globally and help countries in need without acting in bad faith against innovators who stepped up when the world needed them the most. The action from the Biden administration to support waiving intellectual property rights will undermine the innovation we're relying on to bring this pandemic to an end and will leave us with a less prepared future,” Burr added.

Kessler agreed that more than a patent waiver would be needed to scale up vaccine production to the levels needed to address the global demand, and that the Department of Health and Human Services would continue to work with all possible partners to address the need.

Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) also noted her upcoming legislative efforts with Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to be better prepared for the next pandemic. Murray added that the legislation would aim to “address and build on lessons learned from the COVID-19 response, ensure robust public health and medical capacity to provide services to those most at risk, improve and supply the supply chain for critical medical supplies, tackle the health disparities that afflict so many of our communities, and strengthen the nation's public health infrastructure and medical preparedness and response programs at every level.”

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