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Top health officials pledge to keep politics out of COVID-19 vaccine process

Top health officials pledge to keep politics out of COVID-19 vaccine process
© Greg Nash

Top federal health officials tried to reassure lawmakers on Wednesday that politics will not play a role in determining whether a COVID-19 vaccine is approved, amid fears that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE is politicizing the process.

“Science and science alone will be the way in which this decision is made, otherwise I’ll have no part in it,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Trump has suggested that a vaccine could be approved before Election Day, raising concerns among Democrats, public health officials and scientists that he could try to rush the process to improve his reelection prospects.

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Collins said Wednesday he is “cautiously optimistic” a vaccine could be approved by the end of the year, but “even that is a guess.”

“Whether it’s going to be done by a certain date, I could not possibly tell you right not because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he added.

Collins’s comments come as polls show Americans are increasingly skeptical about taking a potential COVID-19 vaccine. Distrust of vaccines was an issue long before Trump was elected, but Democrats and experts have raised concerns that the president's recent comments could deter more people from getting a COVID-19 vaccine if one is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Just in the past few weeks alone, the president has accused FDA officials of being deep state operatives, he has tweeted conspiracy theories about COVID-19 death tolls and he has implicitly tied vaccine development to his reelection campaign,” said Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenAll fracked up: Biden's Keystone State breakdown What do Google, banks and chicken salad have in common? Final debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit MORE (D-Mass.) at Wednesday's hearing.

She cited a recent poll from CBS News/YouGov showing that just 21 percent of Americans surveyed said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine immediately if one were released this year.

Collins said he hopes “those scary numbers” are just based on people “not knowing what the facts are” and acknowledged the federal government will need to be more transparent about the vaccine approval process to earn public trust.

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“We’ll have to work really hard in the coming weeks and months to get the facts out there about how the decisions are going to get made,” added Collins.

Surgeon General Jerome AdamsJerome AdamsBirx confronted Pence about Atlas Whatever happened to Deborah Birx? Surgeon general cited for taking pictures in Hawaii park closed to prevent virus spread MORE, who was appointed by Trump, acknowledged growing levels of vaccine hesitancy.

“I think it’s also important to understand we have a once in a century pandemic superimposed on top of a presidential election. That’s made messaging even more difficult and concerning,” he said.

Adams, who is a member of the White House coronavirus task force, added that there is “no politicization of the vaccine process whatsoever” and his family will get vaccinated.

“This vaccine will be safe. It will be effective. Or it will not be approved,” Adams said.

His comments appeared to reassure Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersObama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions Americans have a choice: Socialized medicine or health care freedom Ocasio-Cortez says Democrats must focus on winning White House for Biden MORE (I-Vt.), who said: “That’s the kind of answer the American people are looking for.”

Vaccine hesitancy is a bipartisan concern. Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHarris blasts GOP for confirming Amy Coney Barrett: 'We won't forget this' GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg Murkowski predicts Barrett won't overturn Roe v. Wade MORE (R-Alaska) noted that her state has among the lowest vaccination rates in the country for other diseases.

“We are exactly the type of state that needs to have that assurance that this vaccine is going to be safe, that this vaccine has not been subject to political initiatives that would speed it up in any such way that would cause it to be less effective,” she said.

In an effort to shore up public confidence, nine drug manufacturers working on potential COVID-19 vaccines released a rare joint statement Tuesday pledging to only ask the FDA to approve vaccines that rigorous trials show are safe and effective.

Collins also noted that an independent group of experts will be reviewing data from clinical trials of vaccine candidates before anything is approved.

Wednesday's hearing comes one day after AstraZeneca paused a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial to investigate a “potentially unexplained illness.”

The company’s decision should reassure the public that the government and drug makers will “focus first on safety and make no compromises,” Collins said.

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Concerns about political influence in the vaccine approval process follow the FDA’s decisions to approve emergency use authorizations for two potential COVID-19 drugs despite limited data showing their effectiveness.

The FDA initially approved the emergency use of hydroxychloroquine — an antimalarial drug touted by Trump and his allies — as a potential COVID-19 treatment, before pulling it after studies showed it was ineffective and might cause harm in some patients. 

The FDA later issued an emergency approval for convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 treatment, even though Collins and Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci on latest surge: 'No matter how you look at it, it's not good news' Trump federal salary adviser resigns over order stripping worker protections White House to host swearing-in event for Barrett on Monday night MORE, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, warned there was not enough data showing its effectiveness.

Trump has touted the emergency approval as proof that his COVID-19 response is working.

Asked by Warren whether Trump’s rhetoric is helpful, Collins, who was initially appointed by former President Obama and re-nominated by Trump, demurred, saying: “I just hope Americans will choose to take the information they need from scientists and physicians, and not from politicians.”