Washington, D.C.) – Today, at a hearing of the Senate Labor, Health, and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, spoke about the importance of making sure U.S. efforts to develop safe and effective medical countermeasures for COVID-19—like diagnostics, therapeutics, and a vaccine—are led by science and public health, not politics. She warned against letting the Trump Administration repeat its testing mistakes which caused delays and exacerbated existing health disparities.
“The Trump Administration put politics ahead of public health by promoting unproven treatments, and steering PPE contracts to unqualified political allies. The Administration failed to plan in a comprehensive way for nationwide challenges like scaling up testing and contact tracing, and ignored—and exacerbated—existing health disparities that left Black, Latino, and Tribal communities to face the worst of this crisis,” said Senator Murray. “If we want to get out of this mess anytime soon, the Trump Administration has to do better—particularly when it comes to developing a safe, effective vaccine that is widely available.
Senator Murray argued for transparency and accountability, particularly in light of the Trump Administration’s steps to remove key Biomedical Advanced Research And Development Authority (BARDA) officials, promote unproven treatments, and prioritize political connections over qualifications when seeking to secure personal protective equipment.
In order to address these issues, Senator Murray urged Congress require the Trump Administration to put forward a comprehensive national vaccine plan that details how it will develop, produce, and distribute a safe and effective vaccine in a way that addresses disparities, protects vulnerable populations, fights vaccine hesitancy, and ensures the vaccine is free to everyone. She also called on the Administration to commit to publicly releasing the trial data experts will use to evaluate vaccine safety and effectiveness.
“We saw with testing how the Administration’s stubborn refusal to plan led to totally avoidable delays, so Congress clearly needs to act to hold President Trump accountable when it comes to vaccines, or risk another inadequate plan that offers too little, too late—or worse no plan at all,” said Senator Murray. “This plan must ensure research and development is rigorous, science-driven, and inclusive. And it must lay out specific standards, timelines, and milestones; a commitment to be fully transparent about the clinical trial data experts will use to evaluate safety and effectiveness; and strategies for combatting vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.”
During her questioning, Senator Murray asked Dr. Gary Disrbow, Acting Director of BARDA to commit the agency is avoiding conflicts of interest, and pressed him on why some of the agency’s recent contracts with pharmaceutical companies gave the government less power to ensure fair vaccine pricing.
Watch video of Senator Murray’s remarks HERE.
Senator Murray’s full remarks are below.
“Thank you Mr. Chairman, and I want to thank you and Chairman Shelby for allowing our Committee Members to participate in this hearing virtually today, our Committee staff for setting everything up, and our witnesses for joining us.
“Your agencies play a critical role in the development of some of the most important tools against the COVID-19 pandemic—safe and effective diagnostics to identify cases, therapies to help patients and frontline workers fight this disease, and, ultimately, a vaccine to move towards ending this crisis.
“That’s why Congress has appropriated more than $6.5 billion to BARDA, and $3 billion at NIH, for work on medical countermeasures against COVID-19.
“And we know we’ll need more funding—particularly to distribute and promote a safe, effective vaccine—down the line.
“We also know we’ll need to hold this Administration accountable to avoid repeating mistakes and delays.
“The Trump Administration put politics ahead of public health—by promoting unproven treatments, and steering PPE contracts to unqualified political allies.
“The Administration failed to plan in a comprehensive way for nationwide challenges like scaling up testing and contact tracing and ignored, and exacerbated, existing health disparities that left Black, Latino, and Tribal communities to face the worst of this crisis.
“If we want to get out of this mess anytime soon, the Trump Administration has to do better—particularly when it comes to developing a safe, effective vaccine that is widely available.
“What I hear from experts, is that while we all want a vaccine fast—a vaccine that’s fast but ineffective will fall far short of what is needed to turn the tide on this pandemic.
“That’s why it is more than concerning, that the Trump Administration sidelined our leading scientists at CDC, removed the head of BARDA, reportedly for putting science and public health over allegiance to President Trump, and took BARDA experts off leadership of contracts related to the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I also have concerns about why BARDA has chosen to invest solely in new vaccine technologies that have only been studied experimentally and never made it to market, while not pursuing older, proven technologies.
“Meanwhile, the Administration still hasn’t provided any explanation of how it is selecting vaccine candidates, what the risks are of narrowing down that short list, or addressed concerns about potential conflicts in contracts that pre-date this crisis.
“And it still hasn’t provided a comprehensive national vaccine plan.
“We saw with testing how the Administration’s stubborn refusal to plan led to totally avoidable delays, so Congress clearly needs to act to hold President Trump accountable when it comes to vaccines, or risk another inadequate plan that offers too little, too late – or worse no plan at all.
“That’s why I’m working on a proposal to require the Trump Administration to provide a comprehensive plan for how it will make sure we get a vaccine that is safe and effective, produced at scale and distributed nationwide, and free and available to everyone in a way that addresses the health disparities this pandemic has made worse.
“This plan must ensure research and development is rigorous, science-driven, and inclusive. And it must lay out specific standards, timelines, and milestones; a commitment to be fully transparent about the clinical trial data experts will use to evaluate safety and effectiveness; and strategies for combatting vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.
“When we finally develop a vaccine, we will need to safely manufacture hundreds of millions of doses for the U.S. alone—and billions globally—as fast as possible.
“And that means just as many specialized glass vials, syringes, stoppers, and more.
“Making that happen requires planning to manage the supply chain and navigate challenges like potential bottlenecks.
“We also need a plan for when we begin distributing vaccines to guide critical decisions about who gets the first vaccines, like frontline health workers and high-risk groups, and tackle barriers that could otherwise limit access by making sure the vaccine is free for everyone, and addressing health disparities which have already made this crisis so much worse for communities of color.
“And while we need this plan as soon as possible, we also need to be clear about what scientists and clinicians have cautioned, which is that while there is no guarantee a vaccine will be ready by the end of the year, much less by this fall, there are people suffering with COVID-19 right now who need proven therapeutics to help them beat this disease.
“While a vaccine is our best hope for stopping this virus—it’s not our only means of fighting it, nor is it a panacea on its own.
“So I’m alarmed that while this Administration has invested heavily in vaccine development, it’s treating other priorities as an afterthought by investing far less in better diagnostics that can identify infections early in the course of illness and prevent further spread and pulling the plug on therapeutics that could provide lifesaving relief for hospitalized patients at the greatest risk of dying or suffering long-term health effects.
“Congress provided funding for HHS to invest in a spectrum of medical countermeasures to fight this virus, not just vaccines.
“We need to invest in every type of medical countermeasure— and to do it in a way that benefits everyone in our country equitably, because we know right now this virus is disproportionately impacting communities of color.
“For months now, I’ve been pressing for comprehensive demographic data on access to testing, positive test results, hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions, and fatalities.
“And while I’m frustrated we don’t have all the data we need yet, the picture is already alarmingly clear.
“People in the Black community, Latino community, and in Tribal communities are three to five times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than white people.
“And the death rate for people of color is two to three times that for white people.
“These devastating health disparities are a symptom of a larger pattern of systemic racism and underinvestment in communities of color and a warning that we need to work as fast as possible on an additional relief package to address these disparities before they get even worse, protect workers, students, and families, and continue to support our communities as they fight this historic crisis.
“We can’t know exactly how long until a safe, effective vaccine is widely available, or how long before we can all go safely back to work and back to school, or greet our friends with a handshake or a hug.
“But we know the decisions we make today, whether we prioritize science—or not, whether we plan ahead—or not, whether we care for every community—or not, will make a huge difference in terms of where we are a year from now. So it’s absolutely critical we get these decisions right.