Hahn says F.D.A. decisions are based on science and the agency would ‘not permit any pressure from anyone to change that.’
Four of the Trump administration’s top health officials helping to steer the government’s coronavirus response tried to defend their scientific integrity on Wednesday, amid mounting evidence that President Trump and his administration are trying to interfere with their agencies’ decision making and growing public doubts about whether a Covid-19 vaccine will be safe.
In testimony before the Senate health committee, the officials — Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of food and drugs; Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the assistant secretary for health — each said they would take a vaccine and recommend their families do the same should the Food and Drug Administration deem it safe and effective.
Their vows carried echoes of an earlier era, when Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, inoculated himself and his children before testing it on the public. In their remarks, just a day after the U.S. surpassed 200,000 virus-related deaths, the doctors all acknowledged — without pointing fingers at the president — that faith in their institutions had been shaken, and said they were committed to restoring it.
“Every one of the decisions we have reached has been made by career F.D.A. scientists based on science and data, not politics,” Dr. Hahn told the panel, adding that he would “not permit any pressure from anyone to change that.”
That is especially the case, he said, regarding whether to grant emergency approval to any Covid-19 vaccine. He said that the agency would seek guidance from a panel of outside experts and that the process would be “transparent and independent.”
Dr. Fauci added that “we have been assured that in fact, the American public will not have to pay for the vaccine. We have been told that at the level of the task force.”
Dr. Redfield said it could take until July to get the entire American public vaccinated. There should be 700 million doses available by April, he said — enough to vaccinate all Americans if two doses are required.
That would add a new layer to the vetting process, even as Mr. Trump has insisted a vaccine will be ready as early as next month. The guidelines may be formally released as early as this week if approved by the White House, and would recommend that clinical trial data be vetted by a committee of independent experts before the F.D.A. takes action, according to several people familiar with the draft.
The four officials returned to Capitol Hill after a recent period of turmoil inside the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees their work.
First, there were revelations that Trump loyalists inside the department, including Michael R. Caputo, its top spokesman, tried to meddle with the C.D.C.’s weekly scientific reports. Then Mr. Caputo took medical leave after a rant on Facebook in which he accused C.D.C. scientists of engaging in “sedition.”
After that came a report in The New York Times that C.D.C. guidance about coronavirus testing, which suggested that certain people exposed to the virus did not need to be screened, had not been written by agency scientists and was posted to its website despite their serious objections. The agency reversed itself last week after widespread criticism.
On Wednesday, Dr. Redfield insisted to the senators that agency scientists were indeed involved, though he conceded that the guidance was the product of the White House coronavirus task force, including Dr. Giroir. Without naming Mr. Caputo, he told senators that remarks from H.H.S. suggesting there was a “deep state” inside the agency were “offensive to me.” And he defended the agency’s scientists, likening them to military people who never disclose their political leanings at work.
Looming over the hearing was the threat of a public scolding by Mr. Trump if he heard testimony he didn’t like. Last week the president rebuked Dr. Redfield after he told a Senate committee that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of next year and that masks were so vital in fighting the pandemic that they might be even more important than a vaccine.
The feverish race for a coronavirus vaccine got an infusion of energy on Wednesday as Johnson & Johnson announced that it has begun the final stage of its clinical trials, the fourth company to do so in the United States, which has passed a grim milestone of 200,000 deaths from the pandemic.
Johnson & Johnson is a couple of months behind the leaders, but its vaccine trial will be by far the largest, enrolling 60,000 participants. The company said it could know by the end of this year if its vaccine works.
And its vaccine has potentially big advantages over some competitors. It uses a technology that has a long safety record in vaccines against other diseases. Its vaccine could require just one shot instead of two. And unlike other vaccine candidates, it does not have to be kept frozen as it is delivered to hospitals and other places where it will be given to patients, simplifying the logistics of hundreds of millions of doses.
“Big news,” Mr. Trump tweeted about the trial on Wednesday morning. “@FDA must move quickly!”
The president has repeatedly claimed that a vaccine will be ready before Election Day, and has urged federal regulators to act quickly to approve one, raising fears that they will bow to the pressure and rush their vetting process. The federal government’s Operation Warp Speed program has invested more than $10 billion in private companies’ coronavirus vaccines to date, including about $1.5 billion to Johnson & Johnson.
Facing criticism over secrecy, several companies — including Johnson & Johnson on Wednesday — have taken the rare step of releasing the detailed blueprints of their trials, which are typically considered proprietary. And the F.D.A. is expected this week to release stricter guidelines outlining the criteria it will use to vet clinical trial data.
“We need multiple vaccines to work,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a virologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who led the development of the technology used in Johnson & Johnson’s trial. “There are seven billion people in the world, and no single vaccine supplier will be able to manufacture at that scale.”
Johnson & Johnson’s advanced trial, known as a Phase 3 trial, started on Monday. At a news conference, Dr. Paul Stoffels, the company’s chief scientific officer, said the company might be able to determine by the end of the year if the vaccine is safe and effective.
Johnson & Johnson has begun manufacturing the vaccine on an industrial scale to build up a supply that can be released immediately if the vaccine is authorized, Dr. Stoffels said in an interview on Wednesday. He expected to have tens of millions of doses ready by the end of the year. “Then we can ramp up to many more batches,” he said.
Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine uses an adenovirus to carry a gene from the coronavirus into human cells. The cell then produces coronavirus proteins, but not the coronavirus itself. These proteins can potentially prime the immune system to fight off a later infection by the virus.
Adenovirus vaccines must be kept refrigerated but does not need to be frozen, as the two front-runner vaccines, by Moderna and Pfizer, do. The freezing requirement could make the distribution of those vaccines difficult, especially to places without advanced medical facilities.
Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines also require two jabs given a few weeks apart, a significant logistical hurdle.
The Metropolitan Opera announced Wednesday that the still-untamed pandemic has forced it to cancel its entire 2020-21 season, prolonging one of the gravest crises in the Met’s 137-year history and keeping the nation’s largest performing arts organization dark until next September.
The decision is likely to send ripples of concern through New York and the rest of the country as arts institutions grapple with the question of when it will be safe again to perform indoors. Far from being a gilded outlier, the Met may prove to be a bellwether.
The outbreak has kept the 3,800-seat opera house closed since mid-March, sapping it of more than $150 million in revenue and leaving roughly 1,000 full-time employees, including its world-class orchestra and chorus, furloughed without pay since April.
Now, with the virus still too much of a threat to allow for a reopening on New Year’s Eve, as planned, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, is making plans to adapt to a world transformed by the pandemic, including by trying to curb the company’s labor costs.
“The future of the Met relies upon it being artistically as powerful as ever, if not more so,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview. “The artistic experiences have to be better than ever before to attract audiences back. Where we need to cut back is costs.”
The Met plans to return to its gilded stage next September with Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the first time that it will mount an opera by a Black composer — a long-overdue milestone, and part of a new focus on contemporary works alongside the ornate productions of canonical pieces for which the company is famous.
The Met will also experiment with earlier curtain times, shortening some operas and offering more family fare as it tries to lure back post-pandemic audiences. But one of its most difficult hurdles may play out offstage, as the Met goes to its powerful labor unions to seek concessions it says will be necessary to its survival.
New York City will furlough more than 9,000 employees this year as it grapples with substantial budget deficits wrought by the pandemic.
Mayor Bill de Blasio made the announcement on Wednesday, a week after he revealed he would furlough much of his City Hall staff, himself included. The action will save the city about $21 million, on top of the roughly $860,000 to be saved with the City Hall furlough. The furloughs will last five workdays, and employees will have to take them between October and March 2021.
These actions will not move the budgetary needle much. This year the city closed its $88 billion budget with an unspecified $1 billion in labor savings. The mayor’s office has since been negotiating with labor unions to find those savings, and the furloughs indicate the kinds of measures the city will have to consider if it wants to avoid 22,000 layoffs.
“No one wants to see layoffs, but unfortunately they’re still on the table,” Mr. de Blasio said Wednesday. “This at least gives us a little more relief while we continue those conversations and try and find a larger solution.”
In other New York City news:
The city’s Health Department warned that the virus was spreading at increasing levels in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, especially among some of the city’s Hasidic communities, which were devastated by Covid-19 in the spring but had seen few cases in the summer. “This is something that requires urgent action,” the mayor said on Wednesday, adding that the city health department had closed two yeshivas in connection with the uptick and that police officers would step up enforcement of public health rules.
The New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square will be largely virtual this year, organizers said on Wednesday. Details on the ceremony were not immediately disclosed. But organizers said that the typical gathering of hundreds of thousands of revelers to watch a ball drop and be showered in confetti would be replaced by virtual events and a small group of people in the square “who will reflect the themes, challenges and inspirations of 2020.”
100 teachers in Kenosha, Wis., call in sick to protest in-person classes.
A school district in Wisconsin where schools have reopened over the objections of the local teachers’ union was forced to move seven of its schools to virtual learning this week after more than 100 teachers called in sick to protest the district’s decision to hold in-person classes this fall.
The protests in the Kenosha Unified School District involve only a fraction of the city’s 1,600 teachers, but they underscore the deep worries of many teachers nationally about returning to classrooms during the pandemic. Studies have found that, because of age, obesity or other health factors, as many as a third of teachers may be at risk of severe illness if they become infected with the virus.
“Educators in Kenosha and everywhere want nothing more than to be with our students, but it is utterly unsafe to do so at this time,” Tanya Kitts-Lewinski, the president of the teachers’ union said at a school board meeting on Tuesday night. She said that teachers were tired of being blamed for the difficulty of reopening schools safely.
The school board in Kenosha decided in July to start the year virtually. After parents demanded in-person instruction, the board reversed itself in August, deciding to offer students the choice of full-time classroom learning or full-time remote learning. The teachers’ union criticized that decision, saying it put teachers and students at risk.
Wisconsin is experiencing a spike in cases, with an increase of about 150 percent in the past week compared with the average two weeks earlier. Most of the other urban districts in the state, including Racine, Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison, started the year with virtual classes. In Kenosha, the state’s third-largest district, at least five students or staff members have tested positive for the virus since school started Sept. 14, according to updates on the district website.
Kenosha, which has been racked by protests over police brutality in recent weeks, is not the first city to experience teacher protests over Covid-19 policies. In two towns in Massachusetts, teachers refused to show up for training at the start of the year, citing concerns about safety.
The Kenosha district said it hoped to return all of its 41 schools to in-person instruction by next week.
In other news around the United States:
Wall Street’s sell-off resumed on Wednesday as a drop in the shares of large technology companies dragged stocks to their fifth decline in the last six sessions. The S & P 500 fell more than 2 percent while the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite dropped 3 percent.
For a fourth time, a game that had publicly become the University of Houston’s “season opener” was scratched. The game against the University of North Texas had been set for Saturday. College football schedules have been upended by the virus. In a statement, North Texas said four people associated with its football program had tested positive for the virus. But contact tracing, the university said, “left the football program unable to field a team for a game this week.”
Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri and his wife, Teresa, have both tested positive for the virus, officials said Wednesday. The governor’s office said the first lady had been tested after “displaying minor symptoms.” Kelli Jones, the communications director for the governor, said Mrs. Parson’s symptoms included “a little, tiny cough and a little sniffle.” The governor has no symptoms at this time, officials said. All official events have been canceled until further notice, the governor’s office said, and the governor’s staff has been tested and is awaiting results.
Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana announced on Wednesday that the state would gradually enter Phase 5 of reopening, from Sept. 26 to Oct. 17. “The numbers continue to track in the right direction,” Mr. Holcomb said. In the next phase, he said, residents would still be required to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing, but size limits on social gatherings and meetings would be lifted. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs would be allowed to operate at full capacity, he added. Indiana began easing restrictions in May, but by July, because of an increase in cases, Mr. Holcomb paused progress toward reopening.
The Baltimore city schools system is planning to lay off around 450 temporary employees and freeze hiring throughout the school system as it seeks to reduce a $21 million budget gap. Across the country, school districts struggling with the additional costs of remote learning and social distancing, combined with funding cuts, have also turned to layoffs. “Nobody’s coming to save us,” said the Baltimore schools chief executive officer, Sonja Santelises.
France raised its Covid-19 alert level in a number of areas across the country on Wednesday, and the authorities ramped up restrictions on public gatherings in several cities to prevent the health system from buckling under an influx of patients.
The new measures, which will take effect in the coming days, include the total closure of all bars and restaurants in the cities of Aix-en-Provence and Marseille and a ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people in Paris and a handful of other French cities.
Olivier Véran, the health minister, said at a news conference on Wednesday evening that the situation in France was “continuing to deteriorate.” The positivity rate for the virus has passed 6 percent, he said.
Mr. Véran said that the authorities were particularly worried because French hospitals were starting to feel the strain from new Covid-19 patients, who now represent nearly 20 percent of patients in intensive care across the country.
France is still far from the wave of hospitalizations it suffered earlier this year, but Mr. Véran said it was becoming increasingly hard to defer treatments or surgeries to make room for Covid-19 patients, as was widely done during the nation’s lockdown last spring.
Mr. Véran said the new restrictions would be temporary and re-evaluated on a week-by-week basis. He warned that the authorities were ready to once again declare a state of emergency in certain areas if the situation did not improve, which could mean limits on travel and business shutdowns.
Saying the government would do all it could to avoid a second nationwide lockdown, Mr. Véran urged the French to reduce their social contacts, especially private gatherings.
“You can’t be extremely vigilant on the bus, in the metro, at the office, in shops,” he said, “and then completely let up your vigilance when you are in a bar, at home, or with family and friends.”
In other news around the world:
The regional government of Madrid said on Wednesday that it would request “urgent military and logistics” support from the central government to carry out tasks like setting up emergency tents for the homeless and disinfecting public areas. Spain is in the midst of a spike in cases centered in the capital, parts of which were again put under lockdown this week. Also Wednesday, the deputy head of the Madrid region, Ignacio Aguado, told a news conference that about 220 additional police officers would need to be deployed to help ensure residents respect the latest quarantine and lockdown rules.
Foreigners with valid residence permits for work, personal matters and family reunions in China will be allowed to enter the country again without having to apply for new visas starting next week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Wednesday. Such foreign nationals have been barred since March.
Saudi Arabia said it would allow up to 6,000 Saudi citizens and residents a day to visit Mecca’s Grand Mosque beginning Oct. 4, according to The Associated Press. The quota is set to rise later in the month. The government said that Muslim travelers from outside the country could be allowed to visit the holy city starting in November.
About 600 pubs that serve only drinks can reopen in Northern Ireland on Wednesday for the first time in six months. Pubs that serve food were allowed to reopen in July. But they may face new restrictions after Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain announced this week that pubs, bars and restaurants in England would be required to close by 10 p.m. starting Thursday. Northern Ireland will decide whether to implement a curfew on hospitality venues on Thursday.
Every day, New York Times journalists are chronicling and debunking false and misleading information that is going viral online. Today, Adam Satariano, a tech reporter, looks at a new study that found that young people are more likely to believe misinformation about the coronavirus:
As public health officials raise alarms about surging coronavirus cases among young people, new research suggests that Americans under 25 are most likely to believe virus-related misinformation about the severity of the disease and how it originated.
In a survey of 21,196 people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, researchers identified a clear generational divide. Respondents 18 to 25 had an 18 percent probability of believing a false claim, compared with 9 percent for those over 65, according to the study, conducted by researchers from Harvard University, Rutgers University, Northeastern University and Northwestern University.
The results diverge from past research that said older people were more likely to share false news articles on social media. Last year, a paper published in Science found that people over the age of 65 were seven times as likely as those ages 30 to 44, the youngest group included in that survey, to share articles from websites that spread false information during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In the virus study, people were questioned to gauge their acceptance of 11 false claims. Those included false claims that the virus originated in people who ate bats, that taking antibiotics protects against the disease and that only people 60 or older are at risk of being infected.
“Across the 11 false claims,” the report said, “we find a clear pattern: The older the age group, the lower the average level of belief in false claims.”
Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes of Belgium took a novel approach to reversing a rise in coronavirus cases in her country: She loosened the rules.
Ms. Wilmes said on Wednesday that masks would now be required only in crowded places, not everywhere outdoors, as she had ordered in the summer. And while she still encouraged people to be in close contact with no more than five people at a time, broader socializing would be allowed if people kept their distance from one another.
Many Belgians have been regularly flouting the mask-wearing rules and have clearly grown tired of strict social restrictions. By simplifying and clarifying them, Ms. Wilmes was attempting to reinvigorate public support — not to defeat the virus, but to live with it.
“The virus is still here,” she said. “But life must continue, adapted to try to control this epidemic.”
The country has recently seen significant growth in the spread of the virus, particularly among adolescents and those under 20. Hospitalizations had dropped to fewer than 10 a day in early July, but the figure has risen in recent weeks. Tuesday’s total, 69, was the highest daily figure reported since May.
Belgium has one of the world’s highest rates of death per capita, largely because of its failure to protect nursing homes.
How Belgium’s notoriously convoluted bureaucracy will enforce the new rules remains unclear. Ms. Wilmes appealed to her citizens to comply voluntarily. “If you respect the safety distances, you can see anyone you want,” she said.
The death of Jamain Stephens, the college senior and football player who died from a blood clot after being hospitalized with Covid-19 and pneumonia, devastated his community and rippled through the sports landscape as he is believed to be the first college football player whose death can be traced to the virus.
Most colleges around the country, including California University, a small college in southwestern Pennsylvania that plays at the N.C.A.A. Division II level and that Mr. Stephens attended, have canceled or postponed fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic. But some schools have forged ahead, hoping to salvage billions in TV revenue, and perhaps some ticket sales. The Big Ten Conference said last week that it would play football in October, reversing an earlier decision to wait until at least next year. The Pac-12 is considering a similar pivot.
Part of the rationale for playing is that young athletes, even if they carry and spread the virus, are highly unlikely to die from it. While that is largely true, the virus can have other serious effects, and the risks have been shown to be more severe for Black people and those with large body mass indexes, like many linemen.
So as cases among college football players persist — Louisiana State Coach Ed Orgeron said last week that “most” of his players had contracted the virus — Stephens’s death may not be the last. More than 10,000 players are expected to suit up this fall.
Reporting was contributed by Matt Apuzzo, Aurelien Breeden, Michael Cooper, Ben Dooley, Rick Gladstone, Joseph Goldstein, Mike Ives, Corina Knoll, Sharon LaFraniere, Patricia Mazzei, Raphael Minder, Zachary Montague, Aimee Ortiz, Tariq Panja, Campbell Robertson, Dana Rubinstein, Adam Satariano, Anna Schaverien, Christopher F. Schuetze, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Kate Taylor, Noah Weiland, Billy Witz, Elaine Yu, Mihir Zaveri and Carl Zimmer.