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Fauci 'cautiously optimistic' coronavirus vaccine could prove effective by 'late fall or early winter'

In written testimony, top health experts also expressed concern about the double whammy of COVID-19 and the seasonal flu this winter.
Image:  Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci participated in a roundtable discussion with President Donald Trump on donating plasma at the American Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, on July 30, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday that he is "cautiously optimistic" that a coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. could prove effective by "late fall or early winter."

"We hope at the time we get into the late fall and early winter, we will have, in fact, a vaccine that we can say will be safe and effective. One can never guarantee the safety and effectiveness unless you do the trial, but we are cautiously optimistic," Fauci said in opening remarks at a hearing before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

A phase 3 trial of 30,000 people for a coronavirus vaccine has just begun, said Fauci, who encouraged any Americans who are interested in participating to apply for the program.

Fauci said in response to a question from Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., that once a vaccine is approved, it will be distributed to Americans "over a period of time in 2021."

"I don't think that you'll have everybody getting it immediately," he said, making clear a vaccine will be disseminated in phases.

Fauci also touted two treatments, remdesivir and dexamethasone, that have been used to improve people's chances of surviving. He reiterated that hydroxychloroquine, a drug promoted by President Donald Trump, has not been shown effective when Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., asked about a recent study that indicated the drug can work for COVID-19 if it's used with zinc.

"That study is a flawed study, and I think anyone who examines it carefully, [will find] that it is not a randomized placebo controlled trial," Fauci said. "All of the randomized placebo controlled trials — which is the gold standard of determining if something is effective — none of them had shown any efficacy for hydroxychloroquine."

Fauci, a top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, testified alongside Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Adm. Brett Giroir, an official within the Department of Health and Human Services who is leading the government's efforts on coronavirus testing.

Lawmakers on the committee pressed the witnesses on the Trump administration's coronavirus response as the number of cases and the death toll in the U.S. keeps climbing. The death toll in the U.S. surpassed 150,000 people this week, and nearly 4.5 million people have tested positive across the country.

Giroir said in his opening statement that the U.S. "cannot test" its way out of the pandemic and that "testing does not replace personal responsibility," such as wearing a mask or washing hands. He said that since mid-March, the U.S. has increased testing more than 32,000%, performing more than 59 million COVID-19 tests so far. Giroir also said the nation's testing has "become strained" because of unprecedented demand.

But, Redfield testified," We are not defenseless now," adding that Americans have powerful tools, such as wearing masks, and if they embrace them, the U.S. can get a hold on the pandemic.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the chairman of the subcommittee, slammed the federal government in his opening statement, saying it has "failed on testing," with states forced to ration tests, limiting them only to the sickest people. This situation is making it "nearly impossible" to control the spread of the virus and to safely reopen the economy, he said.

"We do not need to lose another 150,000 American lives," he said. "But if we do not make drastic changes now, this tragic outcome is well within the realm of possibility."

Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Steven Scalise, R-La., the ranking member of the panel, said that anyone who claims that the administration doesn't have a plan is spreading a "false political narrative."

Holding up a stack of several hundred pages, Scalise said that the administration has a plan and it is being implemented "effectively." He touted efforts to speed up the development of a coronavirus vaccine, which he called "revolutionary."

During the hearing, President Donald Trump took aim at Clyburn, who held up a chart during his questioning of the witnesses that showed U.S. in a much worse position than European countries, which Fauci had attributed to Europe's decision to shut down more than 95 percent while the U.S. only "functionally shut down 50 percent in the sense of the totality of the country."

"Somebody please tell Congressman Clyburn, who doesn’t have a clue, that the chart he put up indicating more CASES for the U.S. than Europe, is because we do MUCH MORE testing than any other country in the World. If we had no testing, or bad testing, we would show very few CASES..," Trump said in one tweet.

Asked for his reaction outside the hearing, Clyburn told reporters, "His level of respect is improving. He called me mister."

Experts have said that Trump's claims tying lower case counts to less testing are inaccurate and have emphasized that the “positivity rate” measuring the number of positive cases that turn up among the tests is a far more useful metric.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tore into Fauci during his five minutes of questioning, demanding that he answer whether protests increase the spread of the virus and repeatedly interrupting him.

"I'm not sure what you mean ... " Fauci said, adding, "I don't think that's relevant to ..." The doctor then said, "I'm not in a position to determine what the government can do in a forceful way" regarding its response to protests.

In a 42-page joint written statement released before the hearing, the three witnesses outlined the Trump administration's plans so far to develop a vaccine and treatments and expand testing.

They also conceded there's no end in sight.

"While it remains unclear how long the pandemic will last, COVID-19 activity will likely continue for some time. It is also unclear what impact the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will have on health care and public health systems during the upcoming influenza season," they said.

"If there is COVID-19 and flu activity at the same time, this could place a tremendous burden on the health care system related to bed occupancy, laboratory testing needs, personal protective equipment and health care worker safety," they added. "In the context of likely ongoing COVID-19 activity, getting a flu vaccine is more important now that ever."