Coronavirus Roundup: You Can Get More Free COVID Tests Now
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s a list of this week’s news updates and stories you may have missed.
Opportunities exist to better protect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response from political interference, a watchdog reported this week. The issue of political interference in the COVID response has been widely documented.
“Multiple senior agency officials highlighted how the governmentwide coordination required in response to an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic can create more opportunity for potential political interference,” the Government Accountability Office said in a report. “Experts and former agency heads have identified structural reforms that may improve insulation of selected HHS agencies against political interference in future public health emergencies.”
Some of the suggested reforms include: making the FDA an independent agency, subjecting the CDC director to Senate confirmation, and decreasing the number of political appointees at the selected agencies. The report notes that “the number of political appointees at CDC, FDA, and [the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response] has increased at least twofold from 2016 through 2020.”
Melanie Egorin, assistant secretary for legislation at the Health and Human Services Department, said in a response to GAO that HHS “is taking a coordinated approach to enhance scientific integrity, so that the way science is conducted, managed, communicated and used is free from political interference.” Also, the department is working actively to implement the memo President Biden issued upon coming into office titled, “Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-based Policymaking.” Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed.
As part of its winter COVID-19 preparedness plan released on Thursday, the Biden administration is making more free test kits available. The administration had to pause the program over the summer due to funding concerns. “We’re able to reopen COVIDTests.gov for a limited round because, in the absence of congressional funding, we’ve acted within our limited resources to buy more at-home tests for our national stockpile,” a senior administration official said on a briefing call this week. Specifically, the funds are from the American Rescue Plan. The official also said, “we've had to think very hard about how exactly to make these trade-offs in terms of how we use these funds.”
The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet on January 26 to discuss “the future vaccination regimens addressing COVID-19,” per a notice in the Federal Register. “This discussion will include consideration of the composition and schedule of the primary series and booster vaccination.”
The Senate passed the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday night, which includes a repeal of the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Now that both chambers have cleared it, it goes to the president’s desk. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated on Monday that the administration thought the inclusion of the repeal “was a mistake” and “we think that Republicans in Congress have decided that they'd rather fight against the health and wellbeing of our troops than protecting them.” However, she declined to comment on what that means in terms of enacting the authorization act as well as noted that every year there are provisions in the NDAA that the president doesn’t support.
The secretary of State announced on Tuesday plans to create a Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy that will bring together various offices. “This new structure would allow our health security experts and diplomats to work more effectively together to prevent, detect, and respond to existing and future health threats,” said Secretary Antony Blinken, in a statement. Global AIDS Coordinator Amb. John Nkengasong will lead the bureau.
The intelligence community “was not well positioned or prepared to provide early warning and unique insights on the pandemic,” but then by the end of January 2020 “the intelligence community warnings were serious and getting more so every day, and its escalating alarms still failed to move President Trump,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., in a declassified report the Democrats on the panel released on Thursday. The report includes recommendations to better prepare for future pandemics.
Also on Thursday, the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released a report on the origins of COVID. “We conclude that there are indications that SARS-CoV-2 may have been tied to China’s biological weapons research program and spilled over to the human population during a lab-related incident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” said the report. “The IC has failed to adequately address this information. The committee has not seen any indications that the Chinese military intentionally released SARS-CoV-2.”
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