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What happened in the Senate's hearing on the federal response to monkeypox

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Monkeypox is a very different disease than COVID, but when it comes to how the U.S. is handling monkeypox, there are some unfortunate echoes of the coronavirus pandemic. That was a recurring theme in a Senate hearing today on the federal government's response to monkeypox. The U.S. has now recorded more than 22,000 cases over the past four months. That's more than any other country.

And NPR's Pien Huang was watching today's hearing and joins us now. Hey there.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Pien, what were some of the criticisms brought up at this hearing?

HUANG: Well, overall, senators thought that the U.S. government response to monkeypox was flat-footed. You know, this was the first congressional hearing on monkeypox, and leaders of the CDC, FDA, other agencies were on the hot seat. And one of the problems brought up was monkeypox testing. Patients, especially at the beginning of the outbreak, had a lot of trouble getting access to it. Another big issue was vaccines. And there are some clear missteps here. In fact, millions of doses in the national stockpile had expired. New doses sat around in a facility in Europe waiting for an FDA inspection when they were urgently needed. And all of this meant that there were delays in getting vaccines to people at a critical time early in the outbreak.

Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, said it's great that the federal government had already been investing in research for decades. That meant that there were tests, vaccines and treatments ready to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATTY MURRAY: But it's also why the stumbles in getting these tools deployed were especially frustrating and inexcusable.

HUANG: Even now, four months into the outbreak, hundreds of thousands of people at highest risk still aren't vaccinated.

SUMMERS: OK. So how did health officials explain some of these big problems?

HUANG: Well, they didn't dispute that things could have gone smoother earlier on. But Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, did point to some hopeful signs in how the outbreak is going now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Over the last several weeks, we've been pleased to see a decline in the growth of new cases here and abroad. We approach this news with cautious optimism.

HUANG: She says that testing is much more available. And with the monkeypox vaccine, they figured out ways to stretch the existing supply. They've ordered more shots. So now there should be enough to go around. But federal agencies say they're still working with a lot of constraints, and some of them have been imposed by Congress.

SUMMERS: OK. So like what?

HUANG: Well, for instance, states have complained that the way that they order monkeypox vaccines is completely different from the way that they order COVID vaccines, and the process is actually worse. But federal officials said that they had to do it this way because they're not allowed to use COVID funding for monkeypox. Another shortcoming in the response to monkeypox is that there are huge gaps in the data. But Walensky from CDC says that's because her agency can't force states to provide it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALENSKY: I don't know the total number of people hospitalized with monkeypox, the data on laboratory testing in the United States. But it's been hard, and it should not be this hard.

SUMMERS: OK. So what does all of this mean for getting the monkeypox outbreak under control?

HUANG: Well, as Walensky mentions, new cases seem to be slowing down. But that's not true everywhere in the U.S. And in recent weeks, fewer people have been showing up for testing and vaccination. The U.S. also just confirmed its first monkeypox death. And in a broader sense, the monkeypox outbreak has been a warning. That's something that Senator Richard Burr, Republican from North Carolina, pointed out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BURR: For the next one, we've got to respond a hell of a lot faster than we did for COVID. And we've got to do much better than we did on monkeypox. Because on the other side of this potentially is one that gets out of control with massive amounts of loss of life.

HUANG: Now, federal agencies say that they need more money and more authorities to prepare. And the White House has asked Congress for more than $4 billion in emergency funding for monkeypox, but it's not at all clear that that will come through.

SUMMERS: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you so much.

HUANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.