House Panel Tackles Global Health Security, Vaccine Hesitancy

Public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci said addressing hesitancy to get coronavirus vaccines is essential to overcoming the pandemic.

Syringes with doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine are shown next to vaccination cards in Seattle last weekend. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Experts testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Wednesday about the waning fitness of the country’s public health infrastructure and the challenges posed by people being skeptical of Covid-19 vaccines.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified that in the past decade, about 50,000 jobs in the U.S. public health sector had been eliminated and said it is essential the country make an investment in that workforce to better prepare for the next outbreak.

Further development of public health labs that detect diseases through the expansion of their sample capacity and improved machinery is necessary to rebuild that infrastructure, Walensky said. She also emphasized global health security, saying it is important for vaccines to be equally distributed not only throughout the country, but the world.

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy is key to ensuring that global health security. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called for outreach from the federal government to get accurate information about the shots to people through trusted community representatives.

“Often people don’t appreciate that the process of showing that a vaccine is safe and effective is really determined…by an independent data and safety monitoring board that [is] not behold to the administration or to the pharmaceutical companies, but it’s made up of independent scientists, vaccinologists, ethicists and statisticians,” Fauci said. “When they determine that the data show that it’s safe and effective, then the FDA makes a decision.”

He added, “The entire process is both transparent and independent and we explain that to people and take the time to address their hesitancy, without being confrontative.”

Global health security was a key topic of Wednesday’s hearing.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said as long as the virus has a place to flourish, it is a threat to everyone, everywhere. Pointing to comments from the United Nations, she noted that global progress on vaccination has been wildly uneven and unfair, with more than 130 countries yet to receive a single dose.

Fauci said he still believes the threat of just one viral outbreak in any of those unvaccinated countries – or anywhere in the world – could lead to another surge in cases.

That fear was one of the reasons he was so pleased to see President Joe Biden direct him to make a statement to the World Health Organization shortly after Biden’s inauguration, committing the U.S. to rejoining the group. America also had committed to joining COVAX, a WHO program working for an equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines worldwide.

“We are giving $4 billion to COVAX but we also know once we get our own country vaccinated, since we’ve suffered worse than virtually any other country besides Brazil…that we will make any surplus vaccine available to the countries who have not the resources to be able to make it themselves,” Fauci said.

Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said redistributing surplus vaccine to countries without any vaccinated citizens hinges on the necessity of booster shots for Americans.

“We still only know that the vaccine has a certain length of protection, probably at least six months, but we don’t know whether that’s a year or more,” Marks said. “So, there may be some wisdom to having some supply, but I’d have to defer to others in the administration about what will happen with additional supply, whether it will go overseas or what not.”

Over 29 million Americans have been infected with Covid-19 since the pandemic began over a year ago and more than 537,000 have died from the respiratory disease, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Walensky testified Wednesday that the average daily coronavirus death rate in the U.S. is still more than twice as high as what the country saw last September.

“We are in a race to stop transmission, and the emergence of variants that spread more easily has made that even more challenging,” the CDC director said. “I am committed to closely monitoring the proliferation of these variants in our country and around the world. We are doing that by rapidly scaling up genomic sequencing and we are well on our way to 25,000 samples per week.”

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