Experts tell Congress politics can’t easily hurt safety


Without masks and a vaccine, we could reach Herd Immunity from COVID-19, but deaths would skyrocket. We break down the science of it.


Despite the public’s legitimate concerns about political rhetoric, politics is not influencing the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, several public health experts testified to Congress Wednesday.

Both government and independent researchers provide strong oversight of vaccine development, said Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University and a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner.

“This is not an easy process to disrupt just because somebody says something about it,” he said. “It does undermine confidence, though.”

President Donald Trump has said frequently that a coronavirus vaccine could be available “soon,” “within weeks” and before Election Day. That has raised fears that the White House might pressure the FDA to authorize a vaccine before it has gone through the full regulatory oversight process, as has happened with at least two COVID-19 treatments. 

The public health and medical experts testifying before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Wednesday said they didn’t think that would be possible, though they didn’t discount it entirely. 

If a COVID-19 vaccine were to be released before it had been fully and appropriately vetted, the public will know because scientists and researchers will tell them, said Dr. Paul A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“You will also hear from people like Drs. Francis Collins and Tony Fauci, both of whom are trusted by the American public, as well as many other academicians and researchers who wouldn’t stand for this,” said Offit, who also sits on an independent vaccine review committee that advises the FDA.

McClellan noted that on Tuesday, seven former FDA commissioners published an opinion piece in The Washington Post saying that while the Trump administration has undermined the credibility of the FDA, they continued to have confidence in the integrity and high-quality scientific work of agency staff. 

A vaccine could be approved within the next month, even under an Emergency Use Authorization, only if there were a “home run” when it comes to the science, with everything in the studies and the process going perfectly. Even then there will have been strict FDA oversight, McClellan said. 

Having politicians talking about timelines only muddies the waters and leads to confusion that is not helpful, said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. 

If career scientists at the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are allowed to do their job and speak freely to the public, the process will be soundhe said.

“What I’ve been asking is for politicians to basically be quiet, to knock it off, to stop talking about a date and let the scientific process move forward,” he said. “That would be enormously helpful and would go a long way to offering assurance to the American people that this is a process with integrity.” 

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