THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the Foreign Press Center briefing on “Renewing U.S. Global Health Leadership.” My name is Jen McAndrew and I am today’s moderator. Our briefer today is Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Walensky will discuss the steps the CDC is taking to restore U.S. leadership on global health and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC’s strategy to reinforce confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the rollout of COVAX and the CDC’s ongoing work with global partners, including the WHO.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. We will post a transcript of the briefing later today on our website. Dr. Walensky will give an opening statement and then we will open it up for questions. We have only a limited amount of time today for the briefing, but we’ll try to get to as many questions as possible.
And with that, over to you, Dr. Walensky.
MS WALENSKY: Thank you, Jen, for that introduction. Good afternoon. I want to thank my colleagues at the State Department for inviting me here today and for their ongoing support and partnership with CDC. It is a great pleasure to speak to members of the foreign press. CDC recognizes your critical role in communicating accurate and timely public health information all around the globe, and on a personal note, I have spent much of my academic career focused on global public health and international cooperation. Our advancements and discovery in health care and science can have profound impact across the world, but only if we work together to ensure equitable access and honest, open dialogue.
I am enthusiastic that CDC is taking steps to restore U.S. leadership on global health. CDC has been committed to supporting prevention, preparedness, and response efforts globally in partnership with the World Health Organization, public health agencies, health ministry counterparts, and multilateral and nongovernmental organizations worldwide. We work collaboratively with more than 60 countries to strengthen the ability of partner nations to detect and respond to disease threats as close to their source as possible.
If the COVID pandemic has made one thing clear, it is the interconnectedness of our world and ability for a disease outbreak anywhere to impact lives everywhere. Health threats like COVID19 – and, let’s face it, like H1N1 and Ebola and Zika – can only be stopped and will only be avoided in the future through renewed and strengthened partnerships and sustained collaboration on a global scale. When it comes to health, we are interconnected and we must be united as one against any health foe.
I’d like to speak briefly on what CDC is doing in the global space to respond to this unprecedented situation. The United States Government through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act and through the CARES Act has committed $800 million for global disease detection and emergency response activities for more than 50 countries who are working to respond to this pandemic.
Fortunately, thanks to CDC’s existing global health security investments and decades of global cooperation and support, we have developed strong partnerships and built some key foundations upon which we are working to respond to this pandemic – for example, our partnerships to control HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria; to eradicate polio; to improve infection prevention and control; and to prepare for influenza and other pandemic diseases have enabled us to work with countries around the world to respond more quickly and more effectively than we otherwise might have.
But there’s always more work to do to strengthen our ties and to ensure our shared goals and commitment to global security. CDC is working with partners to expand global capacity to detect and respond to newly identified and emerging virus variants and to direct assistance to countries that are highly affected by their transmission. In Brazil, for example, we have deployed a team to assist with three investigations in response to increasing COVID-19 cases and assessing the current impact of the P1 variant with a team on the ground working in coordination with U.S. and Brazilian laboratories. CDC is also supporting genomic surveillance efforts in multiple countries in Southern Africa, both directly and through multilateral partners, including Africa CDC, in our coordinated efforts to address increased viral transmission caused by variants such as the B1351 strain.
All of this work is critical to addressing the current pandemic and will make the global response to the next outbreak stronger, more effective, and even more collaborative. We must commit to continuing and strengthening – redoubling – our efforts in this collaborative work. Consider this: According to the 2019 Global Health Security Index, none of the 195 member-nations party to the International Health Regulations were fully prepared for what would become the next pandemic. We’ve seen the challenges around the world and they highlight the urgent need for us to all come together as a global community to reinforce our capabilities to prevent, to detect, and to respond to global health threats.
There’s interest in understanding how CDC is supporting the rollout of COVAX. Another critical facet of the global response to the pandemic is, of course, vaccination against SARS-CoV-2. CDC is working with governmental and nongovernmental partners with low and middle-income countries in a multitude of ways, including strengthening safety monitoring and providing technical support on distribution, policy, and guidance documents. In February, the United States announced it was providing an initial $2 billion to funding to COVAX and would also provide an additional $2 billion through 2021 and 2022. We also re-engaged with WHO on the very first day of President Biden’s administration. I hope that this is an indication of our leaning in towards this critical commitment.
Vaccine confidence is another area of great interest, one we are working on at home in the United States. At CDC we recognize that no amount of funding, planning, and implementation will reach us – will help us reach population immunity if we don’t trust the vaccines. There is a common saying in medicine: Vaccines don’t save lives; vaccinations do. And vaccine confidence is an essential factor we have been addressing in the United States and across the globe.
There are different reasons why some people are hesitant to get COVID-19 vaccines. They may be concerned about possible side effects. They may be concerned about safety, convenience, or cost. Or they have – they may have just received inaccurate information. While vaccine misinformation itself is not new, we have never seen such a volume of misinformation about a vaccine as we see for those for COVID-19, and this is our hill to climb together.
Accurate information alone is not sufficient to combat misinformation. We need to better understand the underlying concerns that may explain why some misinformation is actually gaining traction, and we must communicate with people with empathy and respect, hearing their concerns and combating them with science-based responses or truth in convenience and policy. We must also keep the vaccine conversation going. Misinformation is usually spread because people have questions. The fundamental fact is that COVID-19 vaccines are a key tool that will help us bring an end to this pandemic, and we are getting more real-world evidence each day that demonstrates how important these vaccines are.
I have spoken a great deal this afternoon about the power and importance of partnerships in global health. Alongside our relationships with ministries of health, other U.S. Government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, CDC’s partnership with the World Health Organization is critical. The WHO and CDC have a longstanding collaboration to support and implement global health priorities, and WHO is an important technical partner to CDC. In many ways, WHO helps to make CDC’s global work possible.
In many countries WHO serves as the only organization supporting health activities, particularly within fragile states and insecure environments. WHO is an essential bridge to close this gap. And in countries where CDC does not maintain a physical presence or would otherwise be unable to gain access, WHO serves as our eyes and ears, our essential partner alerting us and the rest of the world to global health concerns.
So by leveraging CDC’s scientific expertise, WHO’s extraordinary global reach, and collaborations across the globe, we work jointly together, inextricably linked to protect nations worldwide from health threats that wreck – wreak devastation with lasting public health – public health, economic, and political effects on the impacted nations and their neighbors. It is more important now than ever that no single country or agency can work alone to meet the scope and the intensity of global health challenges. We must continue to work in close partnership with WHO and many other partners to shape global health policies and practices that make the world a safer, healthier place for all.
Thank you for your time today. I’m now happy to take your questions. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now go to the Q&A portion of today’s briefing. If you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet. You can also virtually raise your hand or submit a question in the chat box. We did have one advance question that I’d like to take now before we go to live questions and that question is from Olga Koshelenko from 1+1 Media in Ukraine. Her question is, “What is the current situation with COVID passports in the U.S.? Are they likely to be provided in the near future?”
MS WALENSKY: Thank you for that question. I think it’s – this is really an important subject. People who are fully vaccinated want to be able to convey and demonstrate in various forms that they are fully vaccinated. I know some government agencies in other parts of the world are issuing governmental passports. My understanding is that we will be doing this in our country through the private sector. So while my understanding is that this is going to be moving forward, we believe our – our vaccinated people here want to be able to sort of shop for the passport that is most of interest to them, and they will be doing that through the private sector. I believe those will be forthcoming.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I’d now like to call on Jahanzaib Ali from ArY News Pakistan. Please unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much – thank you so much for doing this. My question is that we all know that there’s a medicine called remdesivir helps the patients for early recovery. But my question is that is there any research going on to actually prepare a cure – like a cure medication for the COVID-19? We know vaccine can protect us and remdesivir can help in the early recovery. But is there any research going on to make actual medicine who can treat COVID-19? Thank you so much.
MS WALENSKY: Thank you for that question. So the – currently, most of the armamentarium in terms of treatment for COVID-19 is related to remdesivir and the antivirals, dexamethasone, anti-inflammatories, and the monoclonal antibodies. I know that NIH, National Institute of Health, in the United States has put forward a portfolio for other treatment interventions to expand the treatment portfolio, and that research continues and is ongoing.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I’d like to go next to Donghui Yu from China Review News Agency in Hong Kong. Please, unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you for doing this. My question is about the claim that was made by your predecessor, Mr. Redfield, a couple of days ago saying that the coronavirus came from Wuhan lab. So what do you think about this issue? And I also would like to know under the Biden administration, if the United States and China will recover any opportunity to cooperate on containing COVID-19. I know the scientists between the two countries are always cooperating with each other, but how about the governments between the two countries? Thank you.
MS WALENSKY: Thank you for that question. I think that Dr. Redfield was speaking to the WHO report that was going to be forthcoming and his opinions regarding that report. I – we now have a copy of that report that we didn’t have when that interview took place. I do share the concerns that the study was delayed and that there wasn’t full access to all of the data that we would want to potentially scientifically review. The data presented in the report were summary data rather than individual data. I do believe it’s critically important to work together and to develop a swift, effective, transparent, and science-based, independent process for international evaluations about these outbreaks so that we can understand where they came – come – came from and hope to prevent them in the future. And my understanding is that there is movement forward to do so.
What I will say with regard to your second question is that we all are inextricably linked by virtue of global health, and so I think it’s critically important that we work together as a globe, together across countries to make sure we have – we have access to be able to prevent these global health challenges.
QUESTION: So any measures or plan? Any —
MS WALENSKY: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear your question.
QUESTION: — measures or plans between the two countries to cooperate on fighting the COVID-19? Because —
MS WALENSKY: I don’t have any specifics right now. What I will just say is that we are hopeful to work together against common global health threats.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We have a question submitted in the chat field from Jan Kaliba of Czech Radio. It’s quite lengthy, so I will paraphrase slightly. The first part is: “Is the U.S. considering to share some of the AstraZeneca vaccines with European partners struggling to supply their citizens?” And the second part is: “In the Czech Republic they are making the move to give the second shot of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines after 42 days instead of 21 days. How does the CDC see this tactic regarding safety and effectiveness?”
MS WALENSKY: Thank you for both of those questions. Maybe I’ll – so to start with the first one, the United States Government has loaned Mexico and Canada some AstraZeneca vaccine and that is in the context of the fact that we ourselves have experienced over 550,000 deaths, or nearly 550,000 deaths related to coronavirus, among the hardest-hit nations in the country. So we’re working to scale our vaccine among ourselves as well as our neighbors given how hard this has struck the United States.
That said, we are committed to COVAX and to distributing vaccine, and that is why we put forth $2 billion in the first wave with an additional billion dollars committed in two thousand – in 2021 as well as in 2022.
With regard to the second question, this has been one that people have really been discussing and that has been taking a different approach in different nations. The current Moderna vaccine suggests a 28-day second dose, and of course Pfizer is 21 days. We have been concerned both about the durability of the vaccine efficacy as well its – as its potency against variants such as the B117 and the B1351 as well as the P1 variant.
In the lab, it looks like these three variants, our vaccines against these three variants although there’s a diminished effect of the vaccine on these three variants, which is why we feel that we – that we need the second booster dose in a timely fashion to make sure that we have an adequate vaccine effect, an adequate neutralization effect against these variants. So right now we are not considering extending the duration of time between doses.
MODERATOR: Okay. I’d like to call on Muath Alamri from Asharq Al-Awsat. Please unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for the Foreign Press Center doing this and the CDC. I have a very quick question, two questions. First, there is a disturbing media report that shed light on over 100 people fully vaccinated in Washington state tested positive for COVID-19. What is your comment on that? And my second question is: What can the U.S. do to help poorer countries to get the American vaccines for COVID-19, rather than getting a less effective vaccine? Thank you.
MS WALENSKY: Thank you. I’m going to have to defer the first question, because I haven’t seen that report, so I would like to sort of see it and understand the science and the investigation behind it before I’m able to comment.
I think in terms of our support for other countries, I think one of the things that we are recognizing is that not only do countries need resources for vaccines, but we need – they need resources for all things related to COVID. So we have been working hard to support the response by supporting electronic data capture, epidemiologic responses, laboratory testing, as well as infection prevention and control. So among the things that we are doing is not just the resources related to COVAX, but we’re working within the country for resources related to all aspects of the response.
MODERATOR: Thank you. There was a follow-up question in the chat from Frank Hermann – I believe he’s with a German news outlet – which is asking you to elaborate on your answer regarding COVID passports, COVID passports through the private sector. His question is: “Could you give examples as to how that might work?”
MS WALENSKY: So I think that there are different industries that are working to create these COVID passports under sort of some what I’ll call ground rules of engagement, and ensuring there is privacy, ensuring that these passports can cross the digital divide, that there isn’t an equity issue, that you could potentially use these passports if you had a smartphone versus if you didn’t. Similar to the way people sort of prefer one pharmacy chain over another pharmacy chain, people may prefer to engage with one private sector working in a passport versus another. That’s what we’re envisioning.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. With that, I don’t see any other hands raised or questions in the chat, but I may conclude with one final question that was submitted in the chat, in the advance questions. And that is from Paolo Mastrolilli, from La Stampa in Italy: “When do you think the United States will be able to share the vaccine surplus with the rest of the world?”
MS WALENSKY: It’s a really important question. Our vaccine programs are working rapidly to scale up vaccine within the American public. We are now at one in five Americans fully vaccinated, but we fully understand this is a global pandemic and we need to work together, and that is why we’ve not only committed this contribution to COVAX, but also are working in-country to make sure that we’re providing not just the resources related to vaccination, but resources related to an all-in pandemic response.
MODERATOR: Okay. I do see one more hand raised, so this will be our last question taken, and that’s from Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan. Alex, over to you.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you so very much, and thanks for doing this. You mentioned vaccine disinformation. Are you in a position to name some names? We’ve read some reports about Russia-backed organized disinformation campaign previously. Is that the case? And what options exist for combating disinformation? Now that the U.S. is back on the world stage, what are most vital, evolving avenues of collaboration in this case? Thanks so much.
MS WALENSKY: Thank you for that question. We are receiving mis- and disinformation from numerous sources in social media and many other places, and among the things that we’re doing is, first of all, understanding vaccine confidence and making sure that we understand why people may have less confidence in the vaccine. Was it because they felt like the studies weren’t large enough? We know that over 100,000 people have been enrolled in this vaccine. Was it these vaccine trials? Is it because it simply wasn’t convenient for them? Are they worried about the side effects? Are they worried about the costs?
And so we are trying to combat mis- and disinformation and meet people where they are. We’re launching a very large-scale media campaign, educational campaign, understanding – and trusted messenger campaign so that people understand from these trusted messengers exactly how that the vaccine is safe and effective.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: On behalf of the Foreign Press Center at the U.S. Department of State, I want to thank Dr. Walensky for giving her time today to brief the foreign press. That will conclude today’s briefing, and good afternoon.
MS WALENSKY: Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Thank you.