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White House meddling with FDA was 'very unfortunate': Bill Gates

Aarthi Swaminathan
·Reporter
·3-min read

A battle between the Trump administration and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was a “very unfortunate incident” for COVID-19 vaccine development, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates told Yahoo Finance in a new interview.

“We did have a very unfortunate incident,” the co-founder of Microsoft (MSFT) said during an interview with Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer that aired as part of its All Markets Summit, “where the FDA decided that you needed to wait two months after … [administering a final dose in a vaccine trial] in order to have a large enough safety database to see if there might be side effects.”

See also: Coronavirus stimulus is 'the best opportunity' to help get the world vaccinated: Bill Gates

“For a brief period,” Gates said, the “White House was blocking that, or saying that it was inappropriate, claiming that one of the companies had objected to it.”

‘The gold standard compared to other regulators’

The dispute between the White House and the FDA came after the agency updated safety standards for the makers of COVID-19 vaccines earlier this month, asking them to follow trial participants for at least two months to rule out any major side effects before seeking emergency use authorization. But the White House pushed back.

According to a report by the New York Times, the White House was at one point, actively blocking the FDA’s plans to publish the new guidelines.

Stephen Hahn, commissioner of food and drugs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Trump administration health officials will tell lawmakers that their agencies are preparing for a flu season that will be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Sarah Silbiger/Pool via REUTERS
Stephen Hahn, commissioner of food and drugs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Trump administration health officials will tell lawmakers that their agencies are preparing for a flu season that will be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Sarah Silbiger/Pool via REUTERS

But the allegation that companies had objected to the FDA standard is false, Gates noted. For instance, Pfizer (PFE) chairman Albert Bourla tweeted that the company had not even discussed the FDA’s vaccine guidelines with the White House and would “never do so as it could undermine the agency’s independence.”

See also: Bill Gates slams Trump’s COVID-19 adviser as ‘pseudo expert’ who’s ‘off the rails’

The White House eventually reversed course and allowed the stricter guidelines. And that’s a win for everyone, Gates stressed, because “if the FDA approves a vaccine, that is the gold standard compared to other regulators.” Additionally, “the professional staff there is clearly on notice that they shouldn't let politicians tell them what to do,” he said.

On Oct. 25 alone, there were almost 61,000 new cases reported and 340 deaths from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin, are leading the count on a state-by-state basis.

But the FDA maintains that it’s taking a careful approach. “Vaccine development can be expedited,” Marion Gruber, director of FDA's Office of Vaccines Research and Review, said during a federal advisory committee hearing on Thursday that was broadcast on YouTube. “However, I want to stress that it cannot — and must not — be rushed.”

Separately, on Thursday, the FDA also approved Gilead Science’s antiviral drug remdesivir (sold under the brand name Veklury) as a treatment for COVID-19 patients. The drug is the first and only one approved to treat the virus.

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Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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