WASHINGTON -- Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday that he remains confident that a coronavirus vaccine will be ready by early next year, telling lawmakers that a quarter-million Americans have already volunteered to take part in clinical trials.
Officials testifying with Fauci at a House select subcommittee on the health crisis acknowledged that the U.S. remains unable to deliver all covid-19 test results within two or three days, and they pleaded with Americans to comply with basic precautions such as wearing masks, avoiding crowds and washing their hands frequently.
Those simple steps can deliver "the same bang for the buck as if we just shut the entire economy down," said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding that he has studies to back that up.
Looking ahead, Fauci said he's "cautiously optimistic that we will have a vaccine by the end of this year and as we go into 2021. I don't think it's dreaming ... I believe it's a reality [and] will be shown to be reality." As the government's top infectious-disease expert, Fauci heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Under White House orders, federal health agencies and the Defense Department are carrying out a plan dubbed Operation Warp Speed to deliver 300 million vaccine doses on a compressed timeline. That will happen only after the Food and Drug Administration determines that one or more vaccines are safe and effective. Several candidates are being tested.
Don't look for a mass nationwide vaccination right away, Fauci told lawmakers. There will be a priority list based on recommendations from scientific advisers. Topping the list could be critical workers, such as medical personnel, or vulnerable groups of people such as older adults with underlying health problems.
"But ultimately, within a reasonable period of time, the plans now allow for any American who needs a vaccine to get it within the year 2021," Fauci said.
As of Friday, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University, more than 4.5 million Americans have been infected with covid-19, and more than 153,000 have died. In recent weeks the virus has rebounded in the South and West, and now upticks are being seen in the Midwest.
Testing bottlenecks remain an issue.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the federal health official overseeing coronavirus testing, also testified before the panel Friday and touted the Trump administration's efforts, but added, "We cannot test our way out of this or any other pandemic."
Asked if it's possible to deliver test results to patients within 48 to 72 hours, Giroir acknowledged "it is not a possible benchmark we can achieve today given the demand and supply."
But rapid, widespread testing is considered critical to containing the pandemic. It makes it easier for public health workers to trace the contacts of an infected person. Delayed test results only allow more people to get infected.
Giroir said a two- to three-day turnaround "is absolutely a benchmark we can achieve moving forward."
While hospitals can generally deliver in-house test results within 24 hours, large commercial labs that do about half the testing for the country take longer, particularly if there's a surge in new cases.
The latest government data shows about 75% of test results are coming back within five days, but the remainder are taking longer, Giroir told lawmakers.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tried to press Fauci into saying that demonstrations against police violence toward Black Americans spread the virus and should be curbed.
"You make all kinds of recommendations," Jordan said, taking aim at Fauci. "You made comments on dating, baseball and everything you can imagine ... I'm just asking should we try to limit the protesting?"
Fauci sidestepped the question, saying it's not his role to opine on curbing political protests.
But Jordan noted that church services have been shut down due to virus precautions, and asked if Fauci has a double standard on two First Amendment rights, religious liberty and freedom of expression.
"I'm not favoring anybody over anybody," Fauci answered. "And I don't judge one crowd versus another crowd. When you're in a crowd, particularly if you're not wearing a mask, that induces the spread."
FAUCI WALKS LINE
Some Trump supporters have urged the president to sack Fauci, and the president's tweet Friday as the hearing was being held raised the stakes.
Rep Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., had displayed a chart showing rising cases in the U.S. juxtaposed with lower levels across Europe. That caught the president's eye.
Trump tweeted: "Somebody please tell Congressman Clyburn, who doesn't have a clue, that the chart he put up indicating more CASES for the U.S. than Europe, is because we do MUCH MORE testing than any other country in the World."
Clyburn turned to Fauci for a real-time fact check.
"Now Dr. Fauci," the chairman intoned, "do you agree with the president's statement, or do you stand by your previous answer that the difference is caused by multiple factors including the fact that some states did not do a good job of reopening?"
"I stand by my previous statement that the increase in cases was due to a number of factors," he said. One was "that in the attempt to reopen, that in some situations, states did not abide strictly by the guidelines that the task force and the White House had put out."
In contrast, he said, many European nations went into near-total lockdowns.
"When they shut down or locked down or went to shelter in place -- however you want to describe it -- they really did it to the tune of about 95%-plus of the country," Fauci said.
"When you actually look at what we did, even though we shut down, even though it created a great deal of difficulty, we really functionally shut down only about 50% in the sense of the totality of the country," Fauci said.
SCHOOL STILL HOT ISSUE
The hearing also touched on the debate over whether children should return to classrooms or continue learning remotely.
Redfield said he thinks it is in children's interest to return to their classrooms.
"I want these kids back in school," he testified. "I want it done smartly, but I think we have to be honest that the public health and interest of the students in the nation right now is to get a quality education and face-to-face learning. We need to get on with it."
But a report released Friday by the CDC may further fuel parental fears that a return to classrooms is too risky. The report suggests that children of all ages are susceptible to coronavirus infections and also may spread the virus.
The report details an outbreak at a summer camp in Georgia last month in which 260 children and staffers -- more than three-quarters of those tested -- contracted the virus less than a week after spending time together in close quarters.
All the campers and staffers had tested negative before arriving. But the children were not required to wear masks, although staffers were.
MALARIA DRUG PLUGGED ANEW
Meanwhile, the Houston doctor who insisted in a viral video Monday that hydroxychloroquine can prevent and cure covid-19 doubled down on her claims in a new interview with the TV station KPRC.
During the 13-minute interview broadcast Friday, Dr. Stella Immanuel, a primary care physician, dismissed evidence that undermines her claims.
Immanuel's message that hydroxychloroquine is a coronavirus cure -- one that she claims health agencies worldwide have conspired to ignore -- has helped her gain traction in conservative media circles. Trump and his eldest son are among those who have commented on her ideas.
Immanuel claimed that former presidential candidate Herman Cain "likely wouldn't have died" if he had been treated with hydroxychloroquine and said she has administered the drug to hundreds of her own patients with positive results.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told CNN on Thursday that there is "no evidence" that hydroxychloroquine works for treating covid-19, and that the drug performed poorly in randomized trials. It is most commonly used as an antimalarial and to treat disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
And Fauci criticized a Michigan hospital's recent study that hydroxychloroquine significantly cut the covid-19 death rate, calling it a "flawed" trial.
FLORIDA HITS NEW HIGH
Meanwhile, Florida reported another record for covid-19 deaths: 257 listed on Friday's pandemic data report. Nearly 100 of the victims were from Miami-Dade County.
The state has now had four consecutive days of reporting a new high mark of coronavirus fatalities. These are people who died within recent weeks, but finally confirmed by authorities tracking the disease.
For all of July, Florida reported 3,362 deaths from covid-19 complications. For all of 2019, there were 2,703 deaths attributed to the flu and pneumonia in the state.
Public health experts say Florida should slowly improve in August, as the number of new cases has remained under 10,000 for six straight days. The Department of Health on Friday reported another 9,007 newly confirmed cases.
In Wisconsin, Senate Republicans "stand ready" to strike down the statewide mask mandate that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced Thursday, the GOP Senate leader said Friday.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald stopped short of promising that the Senate would vote to kill the order, which is slated to take effect today.
"Republicans in the state Senate stand ready to convene the body to end the governor's order," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "The governor has caved to the pressure of liberal groups on this. How can we trust that he won't cave again and stop schools that choose in-person instruction this fall? There are bigger issues at play here, and my caucus members stand ready to fight back."
Evers declared a public health emergency Thursday and issued an order requiring masks be worn. It was slated to run until Sept. 28, with violators facing a $200 fine.
As of Friday, more than a dozen county sheriffs across Wisconsin said they would not enforce the order, with many noting they didn't have the resources to deal with it or that it was a public health issue instead of a law enforcement matter.
More than 30 states, with both Republican and Democratic governors, have mask mandates in effect.
SURGE IN VIETNAM
Vietnam on Friday reported its first-ever death of a person with the coronavirus as it struggles with a renewed outbreak after 99 days with no local cases.
The Health Ministry said a 70-year-old man died after contracting the disease while being treated for a kidney illness at a hospital in Da Nang. More than 100 new cases have been confirmed in the past week, more than half of them patients at the hospital.
Da Nang is Vietnam's most popular beach destination, and thousands of visitors were in the city for summer vacation. Across the country, authorities are rushing to test people who have returned home from the coastal city.
Vietnam had been seen as a global success story in combating the coronavirus, with zero deaths and no confirmed cases of local transmission for 99 days.
But a week ago an outbreak began at Da Nang Hospital. It has grown to 104 confirmed cases in six parts of the country, including three of the largest cities, forcing authorities to reimpose virus restrictions.
Information for this article was contributed by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Scott Bauer, Hau Dinh and Matthew Perrone of The Associated Press; by Carol Morello of The Washington Post; and by Marc Freeman of the [Florida] Sun Sentinel.