Sen. Smith to feds: Will COVID-19 vaccine have an October surprise?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, prepares to testify at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday, June 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. The committee is examining efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic while putting people back to work and kids back in school. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned lawmakers the United States is headed in the “wrong direction” with COVID-19 and could soon reach 100,000 new cases per day if the country does not get a handle on the pandemic.

Speaking before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday, Fauci encouraged Americans to social distance, wear masks and follow the gradual re-opening guidelines that federal health officials released.

“We’re going in the wrong direction if you look at the curves of new cases,” said Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. “We need to do something about that, and we need to do it very quickly.”

Across the country, the United States is now logging 40,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day, surpassing previous records.

“I would not be surprised if they go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around and so I am very concerned,” Fauci told lawmakers.

Minnesota had 444 new confirmed cases Monday, according to the June 30 update from the state Department of Health, for a total of 36,303 positive cases.

Other states have seen a bigger surge: Texas, Arizona, Florida and California are the new hotspots, leading the nation in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Fauci declined to estimate potential COVID-19 deaths but said the situation “could get very bad.”

“It is going to be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that, because when you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they’re doing well, they are vulnerable,” Fauci said.

Some states have paused some parts of their re-opening. Fauci, who wore a red cloth Washington Nationals mask that he removed to answer questions, recommended people avoid crowds and wear masks.

“If you look at what’s going on and just look at some of the film clips that you’ve seen of people congregating, often without masks, of being in crowds and jumping over and avoiding and not paying attention to the guidelines that we very carefully put out, we’re going to continue to be in a lot of trouble, and there’s going to be a lot of hurt if that does not stop,” Fauci said.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also joined in the plea for Americans to wear face-coverings, saying he hopes young people, in particular, can be more careful about transmission of the disease.

“We are not defenseless against this disease. We have powerful tools: social distancing, wearing a face-covering when you are in public and being disciplined about frequent hand-washing,” Redfield told lawmakers. “It is critical that we all take the personal responsibility to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and embrace the universal use of face-coverings.”

President Donald Trump has been critical of masks, making fun of them on his Twitter feed and refusing to wear one in public. But Republicans have started to come out more vocally in favor of face masks.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee even opened the hearing with a plea for Trump to occasionally wear a mask, even if it is not necessary for him to do so.

“Unfortunately this simple lifesaving practice has become part of a political debate that says: If you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask. If you’re against Trump, you do,” Alexander said. “The president has millions of admirers. They would follow his lead. It would help end this political debate. The stakes are too high for it to continue.”

Last month, Alexander was exposed to a staffer who tested positive for the virus but he never became ill. He credits the mask the staffer wore for protecting him. 

‘Cautiously optimistic’ on vaccine

Fauci told lawmakers he hopes a vaccine for COVID-19 may be available as soon as early 2021 — while cautioning them that there is still a long path in the scientific process to make sure the vaccine works and is safe for all people.

“There is no guarantee … that we will have a safe and effective vaccine but we are cautiously optimistic that we will at least know the extent of the efficacy sometime in the winter and early part of next year,” Fauci said. “Hopefully doses will be available by the beginning of next year.”

Other scientists and researchers have also expressed confidence in the development of a vaccine — due to both the structure of the virus and the number of scientists and pharmaceutical companies working on the effort.

“These are the things we feel aspirationally hopeful about, and we will continue to pursue this,” Fauci said of the vaccine development.

Minnesota Democrat Tina Smith asked if political pressure would be brought to bear on federal agencies to announce a new vaccine in advance of the presidential election, even if the science is not actually ready.

“What I am worried about is that there is some sort of October surprise, and that there is pressure put on the decision makers here to announce the vaccine in October of 2020,” Smith said.

Dr Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, said his agency would follow the science.

“I want the American people to hear me when I say we will use the science and data from the trials and we will ensure that our high levels of standards for safety and efficacy are met,” Hahn said.

The FDA released new guidance on Tuesday for approval of a COVID-19 vaccine. The guidance requires a vaccine be at least 50 percent more effective than a placebo in preventing the disease. The agency also said it would not approve a vaccine unless the developers have “clearly demonstrated” proof of its safety and efficacy through a clinical trial.

Smith also grilled federal officials on whether a vaccine developer could be released from liability to fast-track approval of the vaccine and how Americans can trust the safety of the vaccine if it is developed in a relatively short time frame.

Hahn said the FDA would not release drug-makers from liability for the vaccines. And Fauci said the large clinical trials of 30,000 or more people should help build confidence in the vaccine’s safety.