Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

More than 295 million Americans could still contract or recontract the virus, CDC Director Robert Redfield told the Senate Health Committee Wednesday.

As 21 states report a surge in new COVID-19 cases, public health officials are warning that 90% of Americans are still susceptible to infection. Experts have proposed taking more time to develop a safe vaccine, but the president seems intent on forcing a politically beneficial deadline for its release.  

More than 295 million Americans could still contract or recontract the virus, Director Robert Redfield told the Senate Health Committee Wednesday, as he announced the results of a study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Redfield spoke alongside leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir and Food and Drug Administration commissioner Stephen Hahn, as they emphasized that the vaccine approval process would not be rushed for optics. The White House recently gave the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) power to oversee the CDC’s data tracking and reporting, and experts are concerned that the Trump administration is politicizing vital public safety information.

“We do feel the urgency of the moment. We do take very much …. very seriously our responsibility to protect American lives,” Hahn said. “We will not delay, but we will not cut corners in our process.”

President Donald Trump responded later that evening by saying he may intervene if the FDA approves more stringent guidelines that could push the release of the vaccine past Election Day.

“We’re looking at that and that has to be approved by the White House. We may or may not approve it,” Trump said at a White House news conference Wednesday. “That sounds like a political move.”

There are fears that the typical review and approval process for vaccines could be manipulated due to political pressure. The FDA is considering the move in order to boost transparency and public trust. According to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker, 6.9 million people across the country have contracted the virus and more than 200,000 people have died. Trump’s repeated promises that a vaccine will be ready by Nov. 3 has many Americans skeptical. 

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This is especially true for African Americans, who are among the pandemic’s most impacted groups but are reluctant to participate in drug trials, due to widespread historical and current medical mistreatment. Black and Latino people make up half of the COVID cases reported in the United States, but only 15% of vaccine trial participants are nonwhite. The Pew Research Center reported that the percentage of Americans who said they would get vaccinated if it were available dropped to just over 50% in September, down from 72% in May. 

Under the new guidance, the FDA would ask drug makers to track participants in late-stage clinical trials for at least two months, the New York Post reported. The agency wants at least five severe cases in the placebo group and some elderly patients included in the trial. Any approved vaccine would have to be 50% more effective than a placebo.

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Even if the FDA approves the new guidelines, the process is usually reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget. And HHS has overruled the FDA’s recommendations on medications before

“What I’m concerned about is there could be a gray zone where a vaccine looks partially protective and it goes on the market without a full formal review process,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccinologist at Baylor College of Medicine.