Breaking with Trump, Fauci says U.S. will do 'more testing, not less'

Dr. Anthony Fauci said "there is a reasonably good chance that by the very beginning of 2021," a vaccine will be ready.
Image: House Hearing on COVID-19 Response in Washington, DC
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a House committee hearing on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, on the administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic.Kevin Dietsch / Reuters

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By Rebecca Shabad and Allan Smith

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday that the federal government is trying to expand coronavirus testing, not slow it down as President Donald Trump has suggested in recent days.

In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was asked about the president's recent comments and whether he agrees that it makes sense to limit the number of COVID-19 tests.

"It's the opposite. We're going to be doing more testing, not less," said Fauci, who has played a key role in the Trump administration's response to the pandemic.

Fauci said that to his knowledge, "None of us have ever been told to slow down on testing — that just is a fact. In fact, we will be doing more testing."

Fauci's comments come in stark contrast to Trump's remarks Saturday, when he told a crowd of his supporters at his first campaign rally in months that he wanted to slow down testing for the coronavirus.

"Testing is a double-edged sword," said Trump, who added that the U.S. has conducted 25 million tests. "When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people, you're going to find more cases, so I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.'"

In his testimony, Fauci said the coronavirus threat right now is a "mixed bag" because the U.S. has been "hit badly" with more than 120,000 deaths and 2.5 million infections.

While he credited the New York metropolitan area with bringing down the number of positive cases and reopening its economy carefully, he said other parts of the country are now experiencing "a disturbing surge of infections."

"The way you address that — and I've said this over and over again — is you have to have the manpower, the system, the testing to identify, isolate and contact trace in an effective way so that when you see those increases, you can understand where they're coming from. And you can do something about them," he said.

Fauci said later in the hearing, "When you get an increase in the percentage of your tests that are positive, that's an indication that you do have additional infections." He reiterated that those communities must implement a system to test and contact trace in order to "blunt" that surge in cases.

If those efforts are unsuccessful, "then you have the danger of having a gradual insidious increase in community spread, which will be much more difficult to contain as the community spread amplifies itself," he warned.

Responding to comments Trump made last month about the U.S. having "prevailed" over coronavirus — remarks Trump later clarified as being about testing — Fauci said he would not use such language about the outbreak.

"I wouldn't use the word prevail," Fauci said. "I would say we're still in the middle of a serious outbreak."

Fauci also predicted that a vaccine would be ready by early next year.

"I still think there is a reasonably good chance that by the very beginning of 2021, that if we're going to have a vaccine, that we will have it by then," he said.

But Fauci later said he "flinched a little" at the Trump administration titling its public-private vaccine partnership as "Operation Warp Speed," fearing that some people "may think it is reckless."

"It isn't," Fauci said of vaccine candidates being put on a fast-track. "There are risks, but the risks are all financial risks, and that's what people need to understand. They're not compromising the safety at all ... nor is there compromise of scientific integrity."

In a testy exchange early in the afternoon, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., cited news reports in early March in which Fauci had said that uninfected people did not need to wear masks, but health workers had to have access to them. Asked if he regretted not advising people more forcefully to wear masks earlier, Fauci said Tuesday, "OK, we're going to play that game."

"I don't regret that because let me explain to you what happened," Fauci said. "At that time, there was a paucity of equipment that our health care providers needed to put themselves daily in harm's way of taking care of people who are ill. We did not want to divert masks and PPE away from them to be used by the people."

The other witnesses testifying at the hearing include Brett Giroir, the administration's coronavirus testing coordinator, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield.

Giroir, an assistant health secretary, said in his opening statement that the U.S. has conducted more than 27 million tests and is now averaging 500,000 a day. He said that "the need for testing is greatest" now that the country is reopening.

White House officials defended the president's comments, dismissing them as a joke, but Trump has doubled down on his testing comments. On Tuesday, he tweeted: "Cases are going up in the U.S. because we are testing far more than any other country, and ever expanding. With smaller testing we would show fewer cases!"

He also tweeted that his administration has done a "great job" on the coronavirus and "saved millions of U.S. lives." The president added that Fauci "is with us in all ways."

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said in his opening statement Tuesday: "Testing has been a problem since the beginning, and while it's improved, we are still falling far short of the 900,000 daily tests public health experts believe we need. We are also hampered by the administration's refusal to develop and implement a national testing and contact tracing strategy."

Fauci, Hahn and Giroir all said it had been at least two weeks since they had spoken to Trump. Redfield declined to say the last time he had spoken with the president. Following the hearing, Fauci told reporters he speak with Vice President Mike Pence "very frequently."

"So my messages get to the president through the vice president," he said. "The vice president is very accessible."

Caroline Vakil contributed.