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CSTE Testifies at U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Flu Vaccine Hearing

Posted By Celia Hagan, MPH, Vice President, CRD Associates , Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Updated: Monday, December 16, 2019

This time of year, many people get sick. It’s cold outside, you’re cooped up indoors, and holiday stress is in full swing. Your symptoms may start with a cough and a sore throat. Could it be a cold? Then your muscles start to ache and the fatigue, headaches, and chills set in—it’s the flu.

Although flu viruses circulate in the U.S. year round, a peak of activity in the fall and winter months defines the flu season. Consider: while we know flu season will come each year, the season itself is unpredictable – when and where it will start, what virus strain will be circulating, how severe will the season be, and how well will the vaccine strains match. This unpredictability necessitates robust public health surveillance. The respiratory virus changes quickly making it challenging to develop a fully effective vaccine to prevent and mitigate illness. Tracking the virus is a multinational effort that relies on year-round public health surveillance and data collection.

It’s this complicated, yet coordinated scientific process of seasonal flu vaccine development that drew interest from the U.S. House of Representative’s Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which held a Fighting Flu, Saving Lives: Vaccine Science and Innovation hearing on November 20. Today, a universal flu vaccine—a one-and-done dose that would provide lifetime immunity—does not exist, hence the need to get annual flu vaccines each fall. The Committee was interested in understanding the full cycle from basic research to vaccine development, production, distribution and public health surveillance. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee used this year’s flu season to highlight the scientific and innovation challenges around vaccine development and also focused on efforts to discover alternative influenza vaccine manufacturing processes from the current egg-based process.

CSTE’s President Dr. Sharon Watkins, State Epidemiologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, was invited to testify to share the public health perspective and express the need for better public health data. She highlighted that collecting and exchanging public health data is critical to detect and respond to flu outbreaks, gain an understanding of potential changes in the virus, and deliver life-saving vaccines. In her testimony, Dr. Watkins emphasized the need for interoperable data systems to share data, such as birth and death records and immunization registries and the need to be seamlessly connected to hospital emergency departments. Highlighting CSTE’s recent report, Driving Public Health in the Fast Lane: The Urgent Need for a 21st Century Data Superhighway, Dr. Watkins also spoke of the challenges public health faces when it has to rely on paper-based, manual data exchange methods. In the midst of the vaping epidemic that is occurring concurrently with flu season, it is important for public health professionals to distinguish between the two. As part of her written testimony, a four-page sample of a 350-page faxed medical record for an e-cigarette case showed that it is largely illegible and takes a public health professional significant amounts of time to input into the health department’s system. Dr. Watkins’ testimony helped to emphasize the need to improve public health data systems that has been an ongoing effort of CSTE’s through the Data: Elemental to Health Campaign.

Pictured: CSTE President and PA State Epidemiologist Sharon Watkins, PhD and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, NIH, on November 20 during a hearing of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Dr. Watkins testified alongside Dr. Tony Fauci the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Dan Jernigan the Director of the Influenza Division in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Dr. Robin Robinson, former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and current Vice President of Scientific Affairs at RenovaCare. Dr. Fauci discussed NIH’s research efforts to discover a universal flu vaccine through its collaborations with academia, philanthropic organizations, and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. Dr. Jernigan emphasized that the flu vaccine is the single best way to protect yourself, and that CDC is working with other federal partners to use cutting edge science to improve the effectiveness of seasonal flu vaccines. He also discussed the importance of public health surveillance data to help inform policy recommendations and better vaccines. Dr. Robinson discussed his former role as head of BARDA, preparedness efforts to build national stockpiles of pre-pandemic flu vaccines, and BARDA’s activities to improve vaccine manufacturing.

The panel was well received by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and the presiding Chair of the Committee emphasized that the flu vaccine is safe and the best way to stay healthy during flu season.

To protect yourself and your loved ones from flu, which can have severe complications requiring hospitalization and sometimes result in death, the CDC recommends getting an annual flu vaccine.

Celia Hagan, MPH is vice president at Cavarocchi Ruscio Dennis Associates, LLC, which represents CSTE’s interests on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

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