GOP goes easy on White House pandemic director, doesn't challenge evidence-free COVID claims

Republicans concerned about Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy worsening bureaucracy, "preparing for the last pandemic," but not director's long COVID claims that contradict research.
Former Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff Surgeon speaks at press conference at the Pentagon January 28, 2021

Republicans control the House Oversight Committee, but that might not have been apparent to casual observers of a hearing Wednesday on the White House's 7-month-old pandemic preparedness office created by Congress.

Not only did more Democrats speak at the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing than Republicans, who hold two more seats on its roster, but no one challenged questionable factual assertions by Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy Director Paul Friedrichs.

Those include evidence-free written claims that "tens of millions of people" have experienced long COVID and vaccinated people have a "dramatically lower" risk of developing the nebulous, self-reported condition with no clear biological explanation. 

The previous Democrat-controlled Congress appropriated $1.15 billion to study long COVID, but studies published last year in peer-reviewed American Medical Association and Swiss public health journals questioned whether infection had anything to do with the condition.

One found lack of exercise and "loneliness," but not "biological markers specific to viral infection," were associated with long COVID in young people, and the other, that wearing surgical and N95-grade masks can produce symptoms mistaken for the condition.

Neither the White House nor Centers for Disease Control and Prevention answered Just the News queries for the source of Friedrichs' claims.

The 37-year government veteran, a retired Air Force major general and former U.S. representative to NATO's medical committee, modified his oral testimony to specify those "tens of millions" included people who suffered "other sequelae," or complications, and omitted his vaccination claim entirely. 

But Friedrichs orally continued the CDC's practice of referring to COVID as a "preventable" illness despite universal recognition that vaccination does not stop infection, as subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, reminded him.

Multiple studies have found that boosting triggers an antibody "class switch" that weakens the body's ability to fight off COVID infection, meaning that people following federal "up-to-date" recommendations may actually get infected more frequently, including young people at higher risk of vaccine-induced heart inflammation.

Harvard students finally have the option to avoid that risk entirely under a policy change announced Tuesday, the last in the Ivy League to go vaccine-optional. That leaves 65 mostly private colleges with mandates, according to the March 2 tracker by No College Mandates.

Four of them are historically black colleges and universities in Georgia, Peach State-based COVID researcher Kelley Krohnert noted Wednesday, pointing to the CDC's touted partnerships with HBCUs.

The most notable GOP absence Wednesday was Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the few non-doctors on the subcommittee. 

At its previous hearing on vaccine safety and injury compensation systems, Greene was the only Republican to forcefully challenge the "bullsh*t" claims of CDC and Food and Drug Administration witnesses. Texas Republican Rep. Michael Cloud, who compelled the CDC witness to admit the agency uses "preventable" to mean vaccines "benefit" recipients, was also missing Wednesday.

GOP criticisms of the Biden administration's COVID policy were few and sometimes oblique Wednesday, and some even sought a larger federal role.

New York Rep. Nicole Malliotakis pressed Friedrichs to ensure the U.S. isn't reliant on foreign countries for personal protective equipment and try to "onshore" or at least "friendshore" pharmaceutical ingredients and manufacturing, such as through tax incentives.

Republicans unified around their concern that OPPR would simply "add layers of bureaucracy," in Wenstrup's words, resulting in "confusing messages to the public," as put by Iowa GOP Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the state's former public health director.

"I am allergic to bureaucratic buffoonery, so I will commit in good faith that I will never knowingly do something that creates duplicative or unhelpful layers of bureaucracy," Friedrichs said. 

OPPR will "collaborate and communicate" with other agencies to share the strengths of each, fill gaps and "talk through what might go wrong and anticipate it so that it never goes wrong," he said.

Wenstrup told Friedrichs his office must address the "casualty" of trust in public health and consider "things that worked and didn't work" in other countries even if "in some cases it's apples-to-oranges."

That may allude to different COVID policies such as vaccine recommendations. Democrats sometimes justify the internationally aberrant U.S. one-size-fits-all approach on the basis that it's not a European-style welfare state.

"We still haven't acknowledged mistakes," Miller-Meeks said: waiting so long to reopen schools when "overseas evidence had already shown that there was not a problem with children," playing down vaccine-induced myocarditis for young people, increasing vaccine hesitancy with mandates, and lack of "accurate reporting of adverse outcomes" from vaccination.

Democrats suggested America is always on the verge of returning to 2020, the first year of the pandemic, without extensive federal outlays to research and develop treatments for novel pathogens as well as improve therapeutics for COVID, influenza and RSV, which Michigan Democrat Rep. Debbie Dingell called a "three-prong threat" currently sickening several of her staff.

California Rep. Raul Ruiz, the subcommittee's top Democrat, celebrated 24% fewer deaths in the most recent respiratory-infection season. But the emergency-room physician said the U.S. must "stay on the cutting edge with advanced therapeutics" to mitigate resurgences and future pandemics.

It's an "incredibly good news story" that research and development and pharmaceutical makers quickly made vaccines for all three, Friedrichs said, which "offered us opportunities then to rethink our messaging" to Americans about mitigating risk from "these preventable illnesses."

He nodded toward the lack of public trust, saying that OPPR must "transparently and accurately describe what we know and what we don't know" so Americans can make informed choices.

The feds made mistakes because "there were no experts" and the public had "so much reaction to the amount of deaths" from COVID, said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md. "Some" are advocating a $2 billion cut for pandemic preparedness, he warned.

Officials made the best decisions they could with the information they had, Friedrichs responded, echoing CDC and FDA officials from the previous hearing. He credited a shortage of healthcare workers in part to doctors "being attacked for what they did" to save lives.

Rep. Rich McCormick challenged Friedrichs on who was threatening doctors. As an ER physician on the pandemic frontlines, the Georgia Republican said government officials "thought they knew better than me" and could censor his medical advice.

McCormick warned colleagues against "preparing for the last pandemic" by spending "billions of dollars padding the pockets of certain people" and letting "big brother government … decide all the conclusions by itself."