Azar pushes back on congressional concerns of political interference in COVID-19 vaccine approval

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar tried to allay concerns from lawmakers this week that political influence might taint the approval process for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The vaccine approval process will be determined by career officials over at [Food and Drug Administration],” Azar said.

Azar was speaking Friday before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis after multiple media reports of HHS political appointees seeking to interfere with the response to the pandemic.

His statements came as Democrats on the panel released a report Friday outlining examples of political interference. “The analysis demonstrates that over the last eight months, the administration engaged in a persistent pattern of political interference—repeatedly overruling and sidelining top scientists and undermining Americans’ health to advance the president’s partisan agenda,” according to a statement from the committee on the report.

The committee highlighted a story from Politico that political appointees sought to change a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about the spread of the virus because they believed it implied the Trump administration was moving too slowly.

RELATED: How will COVID-19 vaccines be allocated? AHIP has some questions

Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, highlighted emails from former HHS adviser Paul Alexander, M.D., that demanded he review any findings from the CDC and tweak them to “ensure it is fair and balanced and ‘complete.’”

Alexander wrote back in August that CDC reported kids could spread the virus and impact school reopenings. He called the report misleading and designed to hurt President Donald Trump. Alexander left the agency after his remarks were published by Politico.

Azar said in response to Clyburn’s questions about the emails that he does not support those statements.

“There is a way to have a discussion and debate that is proper, and appropriate,” he said. “I do not find that tone and tenor of discussion to be acceptable in my department.”

Azar also emphasized that the development of a COVID-19 vaccine will be based on available data on safety and efficacy. There have been concerns among critics in the public health community that Trump will attempt to rush a vaccine to market before it is ready to help with his reelection campaign.

"It would be a terrible disservice to create vaccine hesitancy around the coronavirus," Azar said. "People will die."

He said the White House’s Operation Warp Speed is working to take away the financial risk from drug companies to pursue a vaccine candidate and to speed up production on whatever candidate is approved.

There are several vaccine candidates going through clinical trials.

RELATED: NIH Director Collins says future COVID-19 vaccine approvals will follow science or 'I will have no part of it'

The CEO of Moderna, one of the drugmakers pursuing a vaccine, said earlier this week that the company likely won't feel ready to seek approval for its candidate until late November.

Republicans said there won't be any interference in the approval of a vaccine.

"There are four American companies that are in the final stages of FDA approval for a safe and effective vaccine," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, the House minority whip. "These companies are all following the best guidelines not just in America but in the world. No corners are being cut."

Azar also touched on the need for Congress to step in if lawmakers want the telehealth boom to continue. “We have been able to, for the first time, unleash the power of telehealth,” he said.

The administration gave new flexibility to get Medicare reimbursements for telehealth. But some of those flexibilities could go away after the public health emergency for COVID-19 expires.

“We waived all of these things, but Congress will have to act to make those flexibilities permanent,” he said. “I don’t think you can walk this back, nor should you.”