The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee convened a hearing to examine the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 response efforts. Top officials from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testified about the separate agencies’ efforts to develop medical countermeasures such as diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccine.
Many senators focused their questioning on the vaccine development process, while others emphasized the need to ensure that the scientific process remains free of political interference. Additionally, a few senators expressed concern that if the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was struck down, COVID-19 could become a preexisting condition that would preclude Americans from healthcare coverage.
During her opening statement, Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) spoke about the Science and Transparency Over Politics (STOP) Act, which she introduced along with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and 32 Senate Democrats. The bill is aimed at increasing oversight of the HHS’s scientific decision-making related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As noted in the press release, the introduction of the legislation follows a series of media reports describing “political interference by the Trump Administration.”
Specifically, the STOP Act would require the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (established by the CARES Act) to create the Task Force of the Pandemic Responsibility Accountability Committee (due: one month after enactment). The Task Force would be required to investigate political interference with decisions made by “scientific agencies” within HHS and submit a report to the Senate HELP Committee and other committees with jurisdiction (due: January 31, 2021, and every six months until six months after the end of the public health emergency). On pp. 4-6, the legislation specifies instances of “political interference” – for example, “pressure the Food and Drug Administration to reach a certain outcome related to a drug, device, or biological product for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of COVID–19.”
In addition, the STOP Act clarifies that the Task Force would be allowed to release any information uncovered during its investigation if doing so is in the public interest. Lastly, the bill would authorize the appropriation of $25 million for fiscal years 2021 and 2022 to support the activities of the Task Force.