The nation's top health officials clashed with Republican lawmakers Tuesday in a somewhat heated testimony before the Senate Health Committee.
Health officials sought to beat back dubious claims about the origins of COVID-19, defended the Biden administration's response to the pandemic, and sought to underscore recent successes by U.S. health agencies – including, most recently, the FDA's emergency use authorization of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccines for children 12-15.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and President Joe Biden's Chief Medical Adviser, told lawmakers that the U.S. is at a "critical turning point" in the fight against COVID-19.
"I feel confident that if we continue to vaccinate people at the [current rate], we will very soon have a situation where we will have so few infections in this country, we will have the level of normality we all value so much," Fauci said, adding: "We are in a race between the vaccine and the virus."
This effort, health officials said, is largely dependent on vaccinating children and adolescents. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) of Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for children 12-15.
Health officials testified Tuesday that children under 12 could potentially have access to the vaccine by late fall – a process that would likely occur in stages progressing younger and younger.
David Kessler, chief science officer for the Biden administration's COVID-19 response team, testified that "all the data support the basic proposition that these vaccines are safe and effective."
When asked what she would say to parents who are considering getting their children vaccinated, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, herself the parent of a teenage boy, acknowledged children are "eager" to return to normal life. "I have a 16-year-old myself, and I can tell you he wanted to get the vaccine," she said. "He wants his life back. These kids want to go back to school."
"I recognize some parents want to see how it goes, but I am encouraging all children to be vaccinated," Dr. Walensky said. "And I am also encouraging children to ask for the vaccine."
According to a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, just 3 in 10 parents said they would be willing to get their children vaccinated as soon as it becomes available, while 32% of parents said they would take a “wait and see” approach to observe how the vaccine is working in others.
Still, Republican lawmakers did little to hide their discontent with the messaging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over the past 15 months, which Sen. Susan Collins of Maine characterized as "conflicting" and confusing.
"I always considered the CDC to be the gold standard. I don't anymore," Sen. Collins said Tuesday, citing what she characterized as "murky" agency guidance over the reopening of schools, mask wearing and summer camp restrictions.
Collins' criticism came the same day the New York Times branded a figure from the CDC about outdoor transmission of COVID-19 as "misleading."
"Why does this matter?" Collins asked. "It matters because it undermines public confidence in your recommendation, in the recommendations that do make sense, in the recommendations that Americans should be following."
Collins comments were echoed by Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a practicing physician, who expressed frustration over the CDC's guidelines, saying that there is "consequence" in delaying updating public health guidelines.
“The American people just lost patience with us — with you guys,” Sen. Cassidy said. “I just ask you to be kind of aware of their frustration.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the hearing, however, was when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., again attempted to press Fauci on National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for a lab in Wuhan, China – a false claim that has been espoused among GOP lawmakers such as Sen. Paul and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Paul baselessly suggested that NIH was responsible for funding so-called "gain-of-function" research – controversial experiments involving genetically modifying viruses – which Dr. Fauci categorically denied.
"With all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect," he replied. "The NIH has not ever, and does not now, fund 'gain-of-function research' in the Wuhan Institute."
When Sen. Paul dug in once again, Dr. Fauci replied: "You are saying things that are not correct. No matter how many times you say it, it didn't happen."
Dr. Fauci said he supports an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, but vehemently denied that the NIH funded the controversial research.
"I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I am fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China," Dr. Fauci said. "However, I will repeat again, the NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology."