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  • Washington Highlights

    House, Senate Committees Hear Testimony on COVID-19

    Francis Collins
    NIH Director Francis Collins MD, PhD testified before Senate HELP on testing capacity.
    Getty Images

    Witnesses testified on May 6 and 7 before House and Senate committees on the requirements necessary to reopen the country safely and effectively amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

    Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) described the May 6 hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS) as an opportunity to hear from public health experts on benchmarks and data required for short-, medium-, and long-term responses to COVID-19. DeLauro highlighted the billions of dollars already provided to health programs under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction through four supplemental funding bills [see Washington Highlights, March 6, March 27, April 24].

    Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-Okla.) shared his interest in making sustained public health investments, including exempting key public health programs from budget caps currently in effect for fiscal year 2021 [see Washington Highlights, April 17]. He also expressed interest in a proposal from witness Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to exempt select public health accounts from annual budget caps to protect the country’s public health defenses.

    In their closing remarks, DeLauro and Cole acknowledged the important role of the Labor-HHS subcommittee in providing funding for federal programs central to the COVID-19 response. Cole said, “I think honestly spending billions to save trillions is a no brainer to me — I think that's where we're at,” in reference to the need for robust, sustained public health and research investments.

    National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in a hearing focused on the development of new tests and increasing testing capacity. Collins described two ongoing NIH initiatives, Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) and Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV), aimed at quickly discovering and deploying COVID-19 diagnostics and vaccines.

    “The goal is to help make millions of accurate and easy-to-use tests per week available to all Americans by the end of summer 2020, and even more in time for the flu season. To be completely honest, this is an ambitious goal,” Collins testified.

    As in the House Labor-HHS hearing, senators agreed that reliable and widely available testing is needed to inform public health experts and prevent the continued spread of COVID-19. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who advocated for the additional NIH funds provided for testing needs in the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act (P.L. 116-139), noted that, “to contain the disease and give confidence to Americans that it is safe to leave our homes, we will need tens of millions of tests, many more than our current technologies can produce.”

    Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) agreed about the importance of testing but warned the development of new tests “must be led by scientists and prioritize public health, not profits or politics.”

    Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) raised concerns about pre-COVID-19 research projects that have been put on hold and the scientists whose careers are at risk with the inability to conduct experiments. Collins shared Sen. Cassidy’s concern for the research community and added, “If you add up what this is going to cost in terms of lost productivity and keeping people employed, the estimates are something like $10 billion in NIH-funded research is going to disappear” because of lab closures.

    Members in both chambers raised issues about the importance of a national testing strategy and the establishment of a robust contact tracing network. Members also raised questions about the need for a better understanding of potential supply chain issues for the components required for administering a test, including personal protective equipment for laboratory technicians and swabs, as well as concerns about the array of components produced outside of the United States. The committees also expressed concern for vulnerable populations, including the uninsured, and their ability to pay for COVID-19-related care.

    The HELP Committee will convene next on May 12 for a hearing titled, “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.”