Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, October 1, 2020

Congress Wraps Up Before the Elections; Hearings Take Place on COVID-19 Economic Impact and Federal Response

After the elections on November 3, there will be a lame duck session of Congress to work on permanent funding for government agencies and other items lawmakers were not able to agree on before leaving for the campaign trail. In the interim, the federal government is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) or H.R. 8337 until December 11. The CR fails to provide any additional emergency funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) but does include no-cost extensions through September 30, 2021, for specific grants that were set to expire at the end of September 2020. Although Congress is not expected to consider any additional legislation prior to the election, there is a push to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in October.

Prior to adjourning for the pre-election recess, there was a series of hearings on Capitol Hill providing an update on the federal response to COVID-19. The Joint Economic Committee held a session with Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who testified that there is a false dichotomy between saving lives and saving the economy. Both can be achieved with strong federal leadership and guidance, clear guidance on mask wearing, and a robust test-and-trace system where infected people are isolated.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing in which Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health (NIH); Robert Redfield, MD, Director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Admiral Brett P. Giroir, MD, Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); and Stephen M. Hahn, MD, Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testified. Joint testimony from all four witnesses detailed the primary mission of each agency, actions taken, and the current outlook with regard to vaccine distribution plans.

The CDC said it is using its expertise in public health preparedness and response, along with its immunization infrastructure, to support Operation Warp Speed in vaccine promotion, distribution, administration, and monitoring and has gone through a vaccine implementation tabletop exercise outlining various vaccine distribution scenarios.

NIH is the HHS agency leading the research response to COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Within NIH, NIAID is responsible for conducting and supporting research on emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19. NIAID has a longstanding commitment to coronavirus research, including extensive efforts to combat two other serious diseases caused by coronaviruses: SARS and MERS. With respect to COVID-19, details were provided on its collaboration with companies to develop vaccine candidates.

CDC and HHS are also working on modernization efforts, including expanding core data, informatics, and information technology (IT) capacity; advancing interoperable systems and tools; strengthening and expanding collaboration with and support for partners; and coordinating data and IT investments and governance. These efforts provide accurate data in assessing the burden placed on the American health care system and inform reopening efforts.

FDA explained its efforts to support the rapid development of COVID-19 tests that rely on scientific principles. The agency has partnered with more than 500 developers since January and has been working nonstop to issue Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) for tests. These tests vary from molecular diagnostic tests, rapid antigen tests, and antibody tests to tests run in clinical labs, emergency rooms, pharmacies, and nursing homes (point-of-care or POC tests) and samples self-collected at home.

During the questions and answers session at the hearings, there continued to be sharp inquiries about the safety of any vaccine developed and probing of the actual process of development to guard against any political influence.