Public health specialists criticize Trump administration over reports it interfered with CDC studies

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Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention speaks while U.S. President Donald Trump listens during the daily briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 22, 2020 in Washington, DC.

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Public health specialists and the medical community are criticizing the Trump administration over reports that politically appointed communications officials have been meddling in coronavirus-related studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Politico reported late Friday that communications aides in the Department of Health and Human Services requested and received the ability to review and seek changes to studies published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. Such reports are authored by career scientists and reviewed by the CDC before publication. They serve as one of the main bodies through which the nation’s premier health agency communicates with physicians and public health specialists across the country.

Politico reported that since Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official, was installed as the spokesman for HHS in April, “there have been substantial efforts to align the reports with Trump’s statements.” Politico cited emails and three people familiar with the matter. CNN and The New York Times confirmed Politico’s reporting, citing federal health officials. 

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs “clears virtually all public facing documents for all of its divisions, including CDC,” Caputo said in a statement to CNBC. ”Our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic—not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC.”

On Saturday, members of the public health community aired frustration over the report, which has not been confirmed by CNBC. Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University, called the reports “incredibly concerning.”

“It’s very upsetting also for those of us in public health and medicine. The MMWR is a landmark CDC publication,” he said in an interview with CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield. “I think that MMWR are still trying to get the information out there, but certainly now, I will start reading with a degree of skepticism.”

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, said on Twitter that the move is “outrageous and dangerous” to public trust in the CDC. He added that the move is “unsurprising.”

Politico’s report cited an Aug. 8 email from appointee Paul Alexander to Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield and other officials calling on CDC to modify two already published reports.

“CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration,” Alexander wrote, referring to reports about Covid-19 risk to children, according to Politico. “CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school re-opening . . . Very misleading by CDC and shame on them. Their aim is clear.”

Caputo defended Alexander’s remarks, saying that Alexander “is an Oxford educated epidemiologist” and that “he has been encouraged to share his opinions with other scientists.”

Dr. Atul Gawande, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard, said on Twitter that political appointees “should have no role in scientific publications. None.”

Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, urged the Trump administration to give career professionals at the CDC more freedom so speak. 

“It remains unthinkable to me that during a global pandemic that has so severely impacted the United States, we hear so little from the CDC,” she said on Twitter. “The expertise is there. Let the scientists speak.”

Through MMWR, the CDC has continued to regularly publish important studies about Covid-19, including one this week that emphasized the risk of spread associated with dining at a restaurant and another demonstrating kids’ ability to spread the virus despite not becoming severely sick with the disease.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar, in a statement to CNBC, said Trump has always been receptive to “the data and science.” The CDC falls under the responsibility of HHS.  

“As the Secretary of Health and Human Services, I have briefed President Trump alongside the nation’s top doctors and I have insisted that he have direct access to these doctors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Azar said. “He has always been receptive to the data and science presented by me and other members of the task force. President Trump’s science-based decision making has saved lives.”

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