Retiring Republican senator lambasts Biden appointees' response to monkeypox outbreak
In likely his final Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee meeting, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) began by calling the Biden administration’s response to the monkeypox outbreak a “catastrophic failure,” and ended with an enthusiastic push to the heads of the CDC, FDA, NIAID and ASPR to do more in preparation for any future outbreaks.
While pointing to the longer-than-expected timelines for ramping up testing and vaccines, similar to the Covid-19 response, Burr said he will continue to be a resource to the various agency leaders “because I only have one goal,” and that’s “for the next one, we have to respond a hell of a lot faster than we did for Covid, and we have do much better than we did for monkeypox. Because on the other side of this, there’s potentially one that gets out of control with massive loss of life.”
Burr lamented the turf wars between the agencies, as some claimed ownership of certain response activities like testing, noting, “It isn’t a question of authority or money, it’s a question of leadership and focus, and squashing the bureaucratic road blocks,” he said.
But Biden’s appointees defended their response to monkeypox, highlighting their work to ease access to testing and vaccines.
While the NIH helped with the trials for both the Bavarian Nordic vaccine, known as Jynneos, and more recently with Siga’s antiviral Tpoxx (tecovirimat), the health and science leaders assured the senators that vaccine supplies are adequate as cases begin to decline nationally.
Despite Burr’s timeline comments on slowness of the response, Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response, defended her withdrawal of vaccines from the national stockpile, noting that when there were only 35 known monkeypox cases in the US, she ordered hundreds of thousands of doses of the vaccine to distribute to states.
Currently, 1.1 million vials have been made available of the two-dose shot, O’Connell said, and the US has purchased 5.5 million more doses, which are arriving in the coming months.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky noted more than 22,000 monkeypox cases, including one death, and lamented some of the existing data gaps, such as the fact that the CDC doesn’t know how many people with monkeypox have been hospitalized.
NIAID Director Tony Fauci, who’s retiring in December and fended off further attacks from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), also explained how the monkeypox vaccine is likely to protect for longer than the Covid-19 vaccines, explaining how the durability of the smallpox vaccine is measured in decades.
FDA commissioner Robert Califf noted the FDA’s work around expediting the approval for Bavarian’s Denmark-based manufacturing site earlier this summer to expand monkeypox vaccine production, as well as around the switch from subcutaneous to intradermal shots for the monkeypox vaccine, which helped to significantly expand the number of doses available.
But even Democrats sought answers on monkeypox, and sought to hear more about what the agencies need.
Senate HELP chair Patty Murray (D-WA) said she was encouraged by the declining number of monkeypox cases but still noted that she’d heard it was difficult to find monkeypox tests and vaccines, adding, “Some serious stumbles were made this year.”
The White House Monkeypox Response Team and federal public health officials said they will hold a press briefing tomorrow morning to provide updates on the response.