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Democrats seek bipartisan vaccine push amid data battles

Image: Senate Democrats [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Changes to central Covid-19 data collection spark further fears of political interference

Senior Democrat senators published a $25-billion plan that aims to ensure all United States citizens can get access to a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19. They sought bipartisan support for the plan, even as they reiterated their criticisms of how president Donald Trump’s administration has handled the pandemic.

The plan came in the form of a white paper presented on 13 July by Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Patty Murray (pictured), the ranking Democrat member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. It called on the Trump administration to publish a strategic plan by 7 August on how it intends to handle the pandemic in the future, including detailed information on supporting vaccine R&D.

Schumer and Murray want the Trump administration to clarify its decision-making process for selecting vaccine candidates to receive federal support, publish vaccine clinical trial data, ensure trials include diverse participants, and collaborate with global R&D efforts, including through the World Health Organization.

“Rapidly and equitably developing, producing, distributing and administering hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine will be a massive challenge, demanding effective management, discipline and transparency,” said Murray. “Unfortunately, this administration has a poor track record on all three.”

Just days later, Murray, Schumer and other Democrats were moved to complain about the Trump administration ordering hospitals to stop submitting their Covid-19 data to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) portal, and instead submit it to a newly established system.

In a letter to vice president Mike Pence written on 17 July, the group of Democrat senators said the new system lacks transparency. They warned: “An opaque data collection mechanism invites political interference in processes and decisions that must be driven by data and public health.”

CDC director Robert Redfield and the health department’s chief information officer Jose Arrieta defended the move, saying it would allow data from more sources to be collated.

But the move came after four former CDC heads accused the Trump administration of an unprecedented level of political interference in public health advice, in response to senior government figures casting doubt on the CDC’s guidelines for reopening schools.

Murray also criticised the Trump administration over the completeness of the data federal agencies are compiling on Covid-19 cases. She said ethnicity data is missing from more than half of Covid-19 case reports, and that the gaps must be plugged to “shine a light on health disparities and address the ways this crisis is disproportionately impacting communities of colour”.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives’ dedicated subcommittee on Covid-19, which is Democrat-led, complained about the Trump administration’s refusal to allow important staff to appear before it. This included health secretary Alex Azar and the head of the National Institutes of Health’s infectious diseases arm, Anthony Fauci.

There was some bipartisan agreement in the House’s Covid-19 subcommittee on the “desire to have a safe and effective vaccine approved as quickly as possible”, according to the Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi. The subcommittee agreed that the Food and Drug Administration should consult the independent Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee before approving any Covid-19 vaccines.