WASHINGTON, D.C. — Public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccination development process is of utmost importance, according to Rep. Anna Eshoo.
“The goal must be to have a vaccine that is scientifically proven to be safe and effective,” she told San José Spotlight Oct. 1. “Nothing and no one whatsoever should interfere with the scientists and their work.”
The Palo Alto Democrat, who chairs the Subcommittee on Health, explained political interference, meddling outside actors and conflicting messages from public officials could all lead to the erosion of public trust.
“Our nation cannot afford a crisis of confidence in a vaccine that can save lives,” she said.
More than 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. But a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found about 54 percent of the nation would still turn down a free vaccine approved before the November election. Participants cited concerns the Trump administration might place political pressure on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve an unsafe vaccination.
A recent poll at Pew Research Center had similar findings. It concluded about 49 percent of adult Americans would refuse or hesitate to get a vaccination due to concerns the process was rushed.
The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a virtual hearing Sept. 30 to discuss how this perception could harm the nation.
The committee heard testimonies from several health experts, including Dr. Ali Khan, the dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and Dr. Mark McClellan, a former FDA commissioner and the founding director for the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.
Khan told lawmakers the challenges with trust must be addressed. He explained the failure to do so could jeopardize the containment of the virus.
“Public acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine is not a given,” he said. “…To increase vaccine uptake, we must avoid the use of predictions in our messaging and provide clear and consistent fact-based messages.”
Recalling how the public’s trust was shaken in 2009 after the availability of H1N1 vaccines did not meet the expectations outlined by federal officials, Khan urged leaders to “under-promise and over-deliver” when it came to vaccination development and distribution.
McClellan cautioned a “range of political actions” were diminishing the public’s trust in the FDA. But he said Americans should have confidence in the organization’s integrity.
Time matters during a pandemic, McClellan said, but the FDA would not sacrifice safety for speed. He explained the FDA’s vaccine experts are globally respected and have unparalleled experience overseeing the development of vaccinations.
“The FDA’s approach to COVID vaccines is part of a well-developed system of independent checks that have been put in place over decades to build a reliable and robust infrastructure for ensuring vaccine safety and effectiveness,” he said.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) asked McClellan if he believed the proper guardrails were in place to prevent political tampering.
“I do and it’s not just me,” he said. “Yesterday, seven former FDA commissioners, (who served) over the last three decades and five administrations, all said the same thing. This is a very robust process that is hard for any political influence to disrupt.”
DeGette said it was easy to understand why the public was concerned. The congresswoman said the Trump Administration had politicized science and undermined its own public health experts on multiple occasions.
“All of us on this committee, Democrats and Republicans, are rooting for a safe, effective and trusted COVID-19 vaccine (that is) accessible to all Americans,” she said. “We will continue our oversight until these goals are met.”
Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.