Health Officials Assure Senate of High Standards for Covid Vaccine

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, gives an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Two of the country’s top health officials said Wednesday a vaccine for novel coronavirus will only get the federal stamp of approval for distribution when, devoid of political influence, its efficacy is backed by research and data from U.S. scientists.

“I’m a scientist,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of National Institutes of Health, told the Senate’s Health, Education Labor & Pensions Committee. “I’ve had the privilege of serving as the NIH director for 11 years. I can’t say strongly enough that the decisions about how this vaccine is going to be evaluated and assessed is going to be based on science.”

Collins added: “And I know I speak for my colleagues in the government and certainly for the scientific community broadly, that that can be the only basis upon which this decision is made. Otherwise the public would not be expected to trust us.” 

Collins testified alongside U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on the process and status of procuring a vaccine for Covid-19, which has killed nearly 190,000 American and infected more than 6.3 million in the county.

Both Adams and Collins spoke to the importance of bolstering public trust in health experts. Their comments come 24 hours after nine pharmaceutical companies — many of them aiding or leading efforts to develop a potential vaccine — issued a statement saying those trials were being conducted “with high ethical standard and sound scientific principles.”

Another development preceding the testimony was the interruption a day earlier of clinical trials for one of the leading vaccine candidates. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a source told The New York Times that a patient given AstraZeneca’s drug in phase 3 of the trial had been diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder affecting the spinal cord.

Collins assured senators Wednesday that AstraZeneca’s plan to reevaluate the effectiveness and safety of its vaccine after a single adverse effect was reported was evidence of a cautious approach focused on safety. He also emphasized that Operation Warp Speed — the Trump administration’s task force formed in mid-May to streamline Covid-19 vaccine production — authorized scientists to work faster within previous safety standards, not to jettison those criteria for added speed.

Part of a slideshow delivered Wednesday by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, at the Senate. those for mass use.)

“Delays that traditionally require many years for a vaccine to be developed had to be addressed,” Collins said. “In some instances, we have done that by carrying out steps in parallel that are traditionally done in sequence. We’ve eliminated downtime by moving into new phases before data from the previous phase is completely analyzed.”

Collins noted that six vaccines representing three separate scientific approaches are in development. By funding more than one version of a vaccine, the scientific community hopes more than one of the three methods will produce antibodies. 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders asked both Collins and Adams if they would ensure that an eventual vaccine would be available to all Americans free of charge after more than $10 billion of taxpayer funds had been invested in the vaccine. 

“I will give you a very direct answer: yes,” Adams said. “As surgeon general of the United States, I promise you we will use every federal tool that we have to make sure that cost is not an obstacle for people receiving what will perhaps be the most important and highly anticipated vaccine of our lives.”

Another concern, however, is getting the American people to accept the vaccine’s effectiveness so that a higher percent of the population gets immunity. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren quoted a CBS News poll that found only 21% of surveyed Americans would get a vaccine if it were available.

Warren also highlighted the difficulty of instilling that trust in public health institutions when President Donald Trump was pressuring FDA officials to approve treatments with lacking evidence. 

“You know, Senator, I’m hopeful that those scary numbers — and you just quoted what, 21% of people now saying they would accept this vaccine —that that’s is based on upon not really knowing what the facts are going to be,” Collins said.  

He added: “I just hope Americans will choose to take the information they need from scientists and physicians and not from politicians.”

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