During the hearing, Senator Collins discussed Northern Light Health’s growing concern regarding equipment that may be needed to store a COVID-19 vaccine.
Washington, D.C. — At a U.S. Senate Health Committee hearing this morning titled, “Vaccines: Saving Lives, Ensuring Confidence, and Protecting Public Health,” U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Committee, questioned our nation’s top public health officials about the federal government’s ongoing efforts to research and develop vaccine candidates for COVID-19.
During the hearing, Senator Collins brought up a recent conversation with leadership from Northern Light Health about their concern regarding equipment that may be needed to store a COVID-19 vaccine.
“They have already bought additional refrigeration units in order to store the flu vaccine and they are stocking up on that, but at least some of the vaccine presentations that are under study would require a sub-zero refrigeration. That’s expensive, particularly for rural hospitals in a state like Maine that are already struggling financially,” said Senator Collins. “How can we ensure that we are not creating inequities and uneven access unless we’re helping with the purchase of those very expensive refrigeration units?”
“You are right that one of the vaccines, the one that’s being produced by Pfizer, requires storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius… and that is a challenge for a lot of refrigeration situations, but I think [Operation] Warp Speed is totally in the space here trying to figure out with the CDC how to make sure that that doesn’t become a deterrent to distribution,” replied Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “If that turns out to be the vaccine that Maine needs, then we want to be sure that’s the vaccine that Maine can get, and that includes in rural areas, not just in the big cities.”
Operation Warp Speed (OWS) is a whole-of-government effort to reduce the time it takes to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, or vaccines, while maintaining rigorous protocols for safety and efficacy. OWS aims to have 300 million doses of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine available by early 2021. Congress has directed nearly $10 billion to this effort through supplemental funding, including the CARES Act.
Senator Collins also noted that in Maine, the three groups of people who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus have been frontline health care workers, black residents, and nursing home residents. Acknowledging these trends, Senator Collins asked Dr. Adams who is going to make the decision about who will receive a vaccine first.
“It’s important for people to know that we aren’t just making this decision in a room. We’re working with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, with, again, professional organizations and other advisory groups, to come up with an answer to this incredibly difficult question of who gets the vaccine first,” said Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General. “There are no final recommendations yet, but the principles are that health care workers and frontline workers should be first in line because we know they’re most likely to be exposed [to] and most likely to spread [COVID-19]. Behind them, it’s looking at who is most vulnerable and using a scientifically-driven and data-driven process to determine who is most vulnerable and where that vaccine will have the biggest impact.”
In their testimonies, Dr. Collins and Dr. Adams provided an update on how the NIH is working with various federal agencies to develop, manufacture, and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. Additionally, the public health leaders discussed the importance of getting vaccinated for the upcoming flu season and the recent decline in childhood immunization rates during the pandemic.
Last month, Senator Collins and 25 of her colleagues sent a bipartisan letter to Senate leadership calling for $15.5 billion for the NIH to be included in the fourth COVID-19 relief package to avoid significant harm to the research pipeline in the U.S. In July, Senators Collins and Jack Reed (D-RI) led a group of 27 Senators in requesting that the next coronavirus relief package include at least $5.6 billion in federal funding to develop and support vaccine distribution.