Long-awaited congressional investigations into COVID-19 are underway, with results so far that are wide ranging and informative.
Among those testifying during the initial inquiry under the House’s new Republican leadership were Dr. Lawrence Tabak, acting director of the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Dr. Robert Califf, administrator of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Here are five particularly noteworthy revelations, based on the transcript of sworn testimony in the hearing held Feb. 8 by two House subcommittees.
1. COVID-19 Vaccines Don’t Prevent Transmission of Virus
Walensky, director of the CDC, confirmed that the vaccines largely were ineffective in preventing viral transmission from person to person.
Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., a physician, drilled down on the rationale for the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates, including the mandate for foreign travelers. In his exchange with Walensky, Bucshon observed that “we have just now discussed the fact that we know that [vaccination] doesn’t prevent transmission.”
“It will prevent the individual from getting really sick,” Bucshon said of vaccination against COVID-19, “but … it doesn’t prevent the risk of someone coming into the country and spreading it to other people.”
“So, it does prevent severe disease and death. It doesn’t prevent transmission as well as it did for prior variants [of COVID-19], but it does still prevent some,” Walensky responded.
For the record: The House recently repealed the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for foreign travelers as well as its mandate for members of the military.
2. CDC Stands by Masking Students at School
Walensky continued to recommend the masking of schoolchildren.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., noted a dearth of reliable studies in the professional literature that demonstrate the efficacy of face masks against COVID-19. Rodgers cited Cochrane Review’s recent comprehensive examination of professional studies on the use of face masks and other nonpharmaceutical interventions to control the spread of disease.
Concerning medical or surgical masks and COVID-19, the authors of the Cochrane Review study concluded:
Compared with wearing no mask in the community studies only, wearing a mask may make little or no difference in how many people caught a flu-like illness/Covid-like illness (9 studies; 276,917 people); and probably makes little or no difference in how many people have flu/Covid confirmed by a laboratory test (6 studies; 13,919 people).
Conceding that this was an “important study,” Walensky went on to say: “But the Cochrane Review only includes randomized clinical trials. And as you can imagine, many of the randomized clinical trials that were included in that were for other respiratory viruses, not COVID-19. Some of them were for COVID, just to be clear.”
“But it is very different for COVID-19,” she said, “because you have a virus that is different from the flu, potentially different from SARS or MERS, [and it] transmits before you actually have symptoms.”
For the record: A randomized, controlled study, such as those included in the Cochrane Review, is the gold standard for scientific research.
While questioning Walensky, Rodgers noted that the school masking policy exacted a serious emotional, mental, and physical toll on schoolchildren. The Washington Republican observed that the CDC is “currently the only national or international public health agency that recommends masking 2-year-old children.”
Rodgers asked for a timeline for updating CDC guidance during the pandemic.
Walensky replied: “You know, our masking guidance doesn’t really change with time. What it changes with is disease. So, when there is a lot of disease in a community, we recommend that those communities and those schools mask. When there is less disease in the community, we recommend that those masks come off.”
For the record: During this exchange, Walensky didn’t present or refer to any scientific study that supports the efficacy of masking schoolchildren.
3. Did America Fund Disputed Coronavirus Research in Wuhan?
Whether the U.S. funded “gain of function” research at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology remains a mystery.
Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., noted that Section 2315 of Congress’ omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2023 bans government funding of “certain types” of research involving “pathogens of pandemic potential.” The purpose is to outlaw federal funding for “gain of function” research that strengthens viruses, particularly in China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran.
Tabak, acting director of the National Institutes of Health, noted in his testimony that in gain-of-function research, scientists engineer a virus and try to make it “more transmissible” and “more pathogenic.”
Tabak told lawmakers that NIH isn’t conducting that type of research and hasn’t funded it in the past, except for research into influenza in the Netherlands “many years ago.”
But in a series of follow-up questions, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., reopened the issue of gain-of-function research into coronaviruses at the Wuhan lab in China and the role of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that got substantial funding from NIH.
Lesko noted that NIH was unable to secure EcoHealth’s records of mice experiments at the Wuhan lab to determine the potential of infection for humans. Tabak responded that NIH terminated EcoHealth’s funding because the nonprofit had failed to provide adequate documentation of the experiments.
“They are no longer funded by NIH to do anything,” Tabak said of EcoHealth Alliance.
Lesko pressed the key point: “Yes, I guess what I am saying is that if you—if we—couldn’t get the reports accurately, how can you definitively say that there was no [U.S.] funding of this?”
Lesko pointed to EcoHealth Alliance’s continued failure to submit the proper reports for over two years and NIH’s failure to conduct proper oversight over EcoHealth’s work in Wuhan.
Tabak responded that the administrative problems were genuine and were being corrected, but he emphasized that the viruses under study in EcoHealth’s “subproject” were genetically distinct from SARS-CoV-2, the scientific name for the novel coronavirus that caused COVID-19.
4. Inadequate Testing for Natural Immunity
Rep. Neal Patrick Dunn, R-Fla., also a physician, emphasized that diagnostic testing was another key failure in the federal government’s response to COVID-19.
T cells, or T lymphocytes, developed from stem cells in the bone marrow, fight pathogens, and are a critical component of the human immune system.
“We have known for over 10 years that the principal source of immunity—the principal mediator of immunity to coronaviruses—are in T cells, not B cells,” Dunn said, adding:
However, to this day, we lack coverage for any cellular immunity testing in this country—that is, the T-cell testing that you see. NIH and CDC have ignored this kind of testing, despite the fact that we know this. This is the way the coronaviruses are principally—to the degree that we have long-lasting immunity from any coronavirus, it is mediated in T cells. Still, no coverage.
Tabak acknowledged Dunn’s point and responded that NIH is looking into T-cell testing.
5. Failure to Take Full Advantage of Therapeutics
Dunn also cited the initial shortage of therapeutics recommended by federal officials for early outpatient treatment of COVID-19.
“I mean, we had guidance nationally [from CDC] that basically said, ‘If you test positive, go home, quarantine, wait until your lips turn blue, and then go to the hospital and maybe we can save you.’ That was it,” the Florida Republican said.
Dunn noted that “broad spectrum antivirals” to combat COVID-19 were in wide use in other countries. In Japan, he said, patients had access to favipiravir, an antiviral drug that had undergone 96 clinical trials.
Califf, the FDA administrator, responded that he would look into the “quality of the trials” for favipiravir and follow up.
Dunn reminded Califf: “Japanese trials are pretty high-quality medicine.”
Next Up: The Wuhan Lab Leak
Given the Department of Energy’s recent conclusion that the deadly pandemic likely originated in a leak from the research lab in Wuhan, congressional investigators will dig deeper. How cooperative government witnesses will be is an open question.
At the outset of this first House hearing, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., noted that between March 18, 2021, and Nov. 30, 2022, he and his colleagues sent 14 letters to NIH requesting information, and “most have gone completely unanswered.”
The most recent letter requested that NIH not destroy any evidence related to the pandemic.
A common—and bipartisan—theme of the hearing was the need to restore public trust in public health. Given the experience of the past three years, only an aggressive congressional oversight agenda can begin to rebuild that trust.
It’s a monumental task.
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