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'A PhD in recognizing bullsh*t': MTG rips feds on COVID vax injuries amid timid GOP response

Republicans barely dispute FDA and CDC officials' claims on COVID-19 and vaccines while sticking to safer ground: mandates and political interference. "Vaccine-preventable disease" just means jab has a "benefit."

Published: February 15, 2024 11:00pm

Federal public health officials may have feared they were walking into a Republican buzzsaw at Thursday's hearing of the doctor-heavy House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which reviewed vaccine safety systems and injury compensation programs.

But GOP members went surprisingly easy on the FDA's Peter Marks, CDC's Daniel Jernigan and Health Resources and Services Administration's Reed Grimes, speaking more often in terms of disappointment than denunciation.

They rarely disputed the feds' claims about COVID-19 vaccines even when officials spoke in the language of absolutes, such as saying the jabs "prevent" rather than mitigate hospitalization and death, and accepted their statistics at face value.

One exception was subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, urging officials and lawmakers to be careful with their wording around COVID – the contagious disease that was detected in 2019 and spread worldwide, which resulted in a pandemic and that has been linked to roughly 6.8 million deaths. 

When the public hears the mantra "safe and effective" about COVID vaccines, "they hear 100% safe and 100% effective," which is reinforced by the feds' failure to specify they wouldn't stop infection, he said. "We never explained mRNA technology" in Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was different from previous vaccines, "and you lumped them together." 

Republicans were more open to challenging policies and alleged political interference.

House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., got Marks to acknowledge the "interesting timing" of the military mandating COVID vaccines just four days after the approval deadline Marks pushed on his staff, including the top two vaccine officials, Marion Gruber and Philip Krause, who left shortly after.

Marks, the Food and Drug Administration's director of the Center for Biologics Research and Evaluation, said he didn't remove Gruber and Krause from the Pfizer approval process because he was told to, but because they refused his review timeline out of concern "about the workload."

The FDA "needed to move as rapidly as possible" amid a summer 2021 spike in COVID deaths, and approval would "help Americans feel more comfortable getting vaccinated," Marks said.

Only Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., forcefully challenged the feds' claims, including Jernigan's assertion that "every serious adverse event" reported in the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System "is followed up."

"I'm not a doctor but I have a PhD in recognizing bullsh*t when I hear it," the fiery Greene said in a five-minute tirade 90 minutes into the previously sedate hearing.

"Everyone" knew early that obesity, diabetes and advanced age were the most relevant COVID risk factors, Greene said, accusing Marks of rushing vaccine approval for young people despite knowing their higher risk for heart inflammation and their "practically zero risk" from COVID.

In his opening remarks, Wenstrup tried to preempt the "pejorative" in the media that the hearing and himself are "anti-vax." 

He volunteered for the Moderna trial, has administered COVID vaccines and worries about falling childhood vaccination rates, though Wenstrup groused about being forced to get a booster to visit Germany then losing his smell from COVID months later.

But people who submitted injury and death reports to VAERS told his staff that FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials never contacted them, Wenstrup said, citing a British Medical Journal investigation that Just the News initially brought to his staff's attention.

The BMJ report also found VAERS has a secret "back end" hidden from the public, which the FDA has justified based on user privacy. Marks told lawmakers that a pregnant woman with COVID in Akron, Ohio, could potentially be identified if the FDA shared more information.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., asked why VAERS cannot at least tell the public how many vaccine-associated deaths the feds have confirmed nearly four years into COVID. 

"We probably have not done a good enough job of communicating," Marks responded, while claiming "there are only handfuls ... we can actually associate."

VAERS had 10,000 reports less than a month after emergency use authorization of the vaccines and more than 700,000 in 2021 and 200,000 in 2022, only substantially falling last year "because the mandates stopped," Greene said.

Wenstrup said the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, which Grimes runs, has paid out only 11 claims among more than 12,000 for COVID vaccines as of January, while Greene said more than 10,000 were still pending and only 40 were even deemed "eligible."

The average payout is $3,700 compared to $490,000 in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which applies to childhood immunizations, she said.

Greene pointed to vaccine-injury activist Brianne Dressen in the room, alleging that CICP never responded to her claim that the AstraZeneca vaccine trial caused neurological injuries that cost Dressen $433,000 a year in medical bills.

The National Institutes of Health "asked [Dressen] to be quiet" after studying her case despite Marks personally telling her that her injuries were real, Greene said, cutting off Marks when he tried to respond. NIH didn't answer Just the News for its response.

Lesko said neither VAERS not CICP has responded with "even a form letter" to her constituent who got Guillain-Barré syndrome from his Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The family of a New York man who died from his vaccine is still trying to correct his VAERS record, which says he was hospitalized, she said. 

Grimes protested that his four-person office didn't have an appropriation when COVID hit, but he now has more money and around 35 staffers. Asked for its CICP claim denial rate, Grimes said the office has adjudicated more than 2,200 COVID claims. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, gave him the answer: a 98% rejection rate.

Officials repeatedly claimed vaccinated groups have lower rates of death, hospitalizations and severe disease without acknowledging underlying group-level socioeconomic and health differences by vaccination status that make the comparison apples to oranges.

Marks got emotional when he apologized to roughly 1,000 parents whose unvaccinated children died from COVID, without stating potentially relevant medical conditions they had.

That was too much for Wenstrup, who said pediatricians tell him they only recommend COVID vaccination for children who meet certain conditions. 

"One size doesn't fit all in medicine. It never has and never will," he said, calling on agencies to "reveal all that data about those that may have died" so the public understands what other factors may have played a role.

Jernigan, director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, said the vaccinated have lower rates of cardiac complications without acknowledging that young men at higher risk for vaccine-associated myocarditis could still get infection-associated myocarditis.

After several unsuccessful tries, Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Texas, got the feds to admit COVID vaccines stop neither transmission nor infection. Marks said early data suggested a "reduction in transmission" that was "very challenging to pin down," while Jernigan and Grimes said their agencies made "the best recommendations" they could.

Jernigan told an incredulous Cloud that the CDC still classifies COVID as a "vaccine-preventable disease" because that simply means inoculation provides a "benefit."

The witnesses got help from Democrats on the panel, with ranking member Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., claiming without a source that COVID vaccines saved 3.2 million lives, prevented 18.5 million hospitalizations and saved the U.S. $1.15 trillion in medical costs. 

Those figures are from a Commonwealth Fund study that relied on modeling, the same method used by Imperial College London academics to predict massive global deaths without lockdowns. Though the study is cited by name in Jernigan's prepared testimony, he was less specific in oral testimony, simply claiming "millions" of lives were saved.

Democrats also invoked the feds' early pause on Johnson & Johnson's vaccine due to reports of blood clots, which Marks said the FDA nailed down as a "causal relationship" within six weeks, as evidence that vaccine safety systems are working. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said she was "scared to death" to get a COVID vaccine after contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome from a mandatory swine flu vaccine that doctors also called "safe and effective," but she was satisfied with the feds' surveillance systems.

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