Federal health and science agency officials testified on the Biden administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic before the Health and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Feb. 8. The testimony followed the Feb. 1 oversight subcommittee hearing on investigating pandemic origins [refer to Washington Highlights, Feb. 3].
Several Republican members of the subcommittees suggested that the federal government overstepped its role through the implementation of masking and vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 response. Democratic lawmakers inquired about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in adverse responses to public health guidance to combat the infectious threat.
During her testimony, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, noted the decrease in routine immunization of kindergarteners between the 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years. Lawmakers expressed differing opinions as to the origins of the phenomena, ranging from distrust in public health agencies and public health guidance to a consequence of misinformation and disinformation about vaccinations.
Walensky also made the case for the agency to be granted greater authority by Congress to improve future data collection and use in a pandemic response. Full Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) responded that the CDC needs more oversight rather than new authority, indicating that the committee would be developing an authorizing bill for the agency in the 118th Congress.
Lawrence Tabak, DDS, PhD, in performing the duties of director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), took inquires from lawmakers about agency funding that had been provided to subcontractors in China and the possibility that the subcontracted research led to a lab leak and the global COVID-19 pandemic. Tabak refuted the claim, adding that the viruses being studied in the lab in question “bear no relationship to SARS-CoV-2; they are genetically distinct.”
Tabak also took questions from the panel about a perceived lack of responsiveness to Republican lawmakers’ questions about funding for certain viral research and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Oversight subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) noted that requests for a “huge number of documents and transcribed interviews of [NIH] career staff while implying that the agency is hiding information about the origins of Covid-19” was not a constructive approach to strengthening the public health infrastructure for future pandemic responses.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf, MD, urged Congress reconsider laboratory-developed test (LDT) reform legislation that was omitted from the year-end omnibus in 2022. While the Verifying Accurate Leading-edge IVCT Development (VALID) Act (H.R. 4128 / S. 2209) would create a new framework for the agency to regulate LDTs, the AAMC repeatedly expressed serious concerns during the 117th Congress about the impact of the VALID Act on the practice of medicine and innovation in diagnostics and patient care at academic medical centers [refer to Washington Highlights, June 17, 2022].