WASHINGTON — Lawmakers fiercely questioned federal officials at a congressional hearing Thursday on US preparedness for seasonal influenza, demanding to know why the flu remains a serious threat to public health.
The atmosphere at the hearing, held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, quickly turned tense as members of Congress challenged witnesses from the the nation’s public health agencies to explain why more progress has not been made in developing effective flu vaccines and treatments.
Last year, the influenza vaccine was a bad match for the dominant H3N2 A strain that broke out. The result was the worst flu season in many years, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that more people were hospitalized than in any year since they started keeping track in 2005. In the aftermath, the subcommittee hauled in leaders from the Department of Health and Human Services in February for a dressing down.
Today, three of the four witnesses were back: Dr. Anne Schuchat of CDC, Dr. Karen Midthun of the Food and Drug Administration, and Dr. Robin Robinson of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, along with Dr. Carole Heilman of the National Institutes of Health.
Although the lawmakers noted that improvements have been made in vaccine development and in mitigating the effects of the disease, most expressed frustration that the health agencies were not further along.
“We are still developing flu vaccines with 1940s technology,”said Representative Tim Murphy, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the subcommittee. “We need better testing to quickly learn of mutations.”
And Representative Diana DeGette, of Colorado, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, showed her impatience with the group, noting that “I’ve been pushing for 10 years to fix the system.”
Murphy asked whether it was true that “there are many new types of flu strains that the world is racing to keep up with.” CDC’s Schuchat acknowledged that there were, but she also said CDC believes this year’s vaccine will be a good match for the flu.
“We have seen more of the types that jump from animals to people,” Schuchat said.
DeGette focused on how to use new technology to speed up development of vaccines, asking Midthun: “It takes a lot longer if you have to rapidly grow the vaccines in eggs, yes or no?”
When Midthun demurred, DeGette was adamant.
“Look, I have five minutes. Yes or No?” she said. “Never mind if you aren’t going to answer my question. New techniques aren’t being used on a routine basis … is that correct?”
Robinson finally responded for the group. “That’s correct,” he said.
DeGette also asked the group whether there were stockpiles of vaccines for pandemic flu. Robinson answered that there are, but that they are 10 years old.
“We are testing them right now to see if they are still good,” he said.