For obvious reasons, public officials are scrambling not only to produce and disseminate a coronavirus vaccine, but also to promote the scientific breakthrough as a way to end the deadly pandemic. In fact, leading Trump administration officials have recommended vaccinations for senators as a way to help encourage the public to accept the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.
It's against this backdrop that the New York Times reported today on Dr. Jane M. Orient and the invitation she received to deliver Senate testimony tomorrow.
A doctor who is skeptical of coronavirus vaccines and promotes the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment will be the lead witness at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, prompting criticism from Democrats who say Republicans should not give a platform to someone who spreads conspiracy theories.
The article added that Orient is the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, "a group that opposes government involvement in medicine and views federal vaccine mandates as a violation of human rights."
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is led, of course, by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has the authority to stack witness panels with anyone he wishes.
In fact, if this sounds at all familiar, it was just a few weeks ago when Johnson organized a separate committee hearing on hydroxychloroquine -- which even the White House no longer talks about -- and the far-right senator's suspicions that federal "bureaucrats" are blocking access to the drug, by relying on "disinformation" and "scaremongering."
At the hearing, Johnson was dismissive of those who balk at using hydroxychloroquine as a COVID treatment, simply because it, "you know, hasn't been proven effective."
As we discussed soon after, he didn't appear to be kidding.
None of this reflects well on Johnson. Circling back to our earlier coverage, we're nearly a year into a public-health crisis, and suffering through a brutal third peak, as COVID-19 fatalities and hospitalizations reach staggering heights. Confronted with these conditions, the Republican chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on a dubious and unproven treatment, and chastised "bureaucrats" for not making it more widely available.
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean at Brown University School of Public Health, appeared as a witness at the Senate hearing -- he was the only witness chosen by Democrats -- and was amazed by Johnson's apparent suspicion that there's a "coordinated effort by America's doctors" to deny patients hydroxychloroquine because of a corrupt scheme involving physicians and the pharmaceutical industry.
As for why the hearing was held in the first place, Jha added that the discussion "was meant to push a narrative: that masks and distancing don't matter. If you get infected -- no big deal -- take some [hydroxychloroquine]."
Three weeks later, Johnson has scheduled another hearing -- and the lead witness is a doctor "who is skeptical of coronavirus vaccines and promotes the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment."
In case this isn't obvious, it's worth reemphasizing that during a pandemic, the Senate Homeland Security Committee could conceivably play an important role. After all, a deadly pandemic is, by definition, an enormous domestic threat.
But to put it charitably, under Johnson's leadership, the committee hasn't exactly met its potential.
In mid-March, as the scope of the coronavirus crisis was coming into view, the Wisconsin Republican went further than most in downplaying the importance of mitigation efforts. As part of his case, the senator told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "[W]e don't shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It's a risk we accept so we can move about." As regular readers may recall, this was a bad argument, for reasons the Wisconsin Republican didn't seem to fully grasp.
A couple of months later, Johnson was seen on the Senate floor without any facial covering. "I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing," the GOP senator said. "I think around here, we probably won't have to." This, too, was a bad argument.
In July, Johnson argued that the United States "overreacted" in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which was unfortunate at the time, and which is a perspective that looks much worse now.
All the while, the Wisconsin senator invested quite a bit of energy into anti-Biden conspiracy theories -- which, not surprisingly, didn't amount to anything of value -- even when committee resources should've been focused on the pandemic.
Now that Election Day has come and gone, the good news is Johnson is shifting his attention back toward the public-health crisis. The bad news is, he's holding hearings that don't appear to help anyone learn anything useful.