In a letter to Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert Redfield, House Democrats said an investigation showed that efforts to interfere with scientific work at the CDC were “far more extensive and dangerous than previously known.”
Those documents show that Trump administration appointees attempted to alter or block at least 13 scientific reports related to the virus, the letter says. The reports provided evidence of the “early” and “massive” spread of COVID-19 across the country, which Trump appointees allegedly interfered with because they believed the reports “sent the wrong message” about administration policies. Those same appointees also allegedly wrote rebuttals designed to undercut the CDC’s credibility. House Democrats are accusing “top political officials” at HHS and the CDC of tolerating and aiding these efforts.
These actions allegedly occurred while administration officials were privately pushing a “herd immunity” theory, in which they posited that most Americans would become immune to the virus if it was allowed to simply spread. Meanwhile, 17.9 million cases have occurred in the U.S., including 318,000 deaths.
Members of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis also alleged that HHS officials tried to “muzzle CDC scientists by retaliating against career employees who provided truthful information to the public” and bullying CDC staff.
The subcommittee is targeting HHS assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo and his senior advisor, Paul Alexander, saying their efforts to influence or block CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) and other scientific publications went on for months and involved numerous high-level officials at the CDC and HHS.
One report involved hydroxychloroquine, the drug that Trump endorsed and the FDA granted emergency use authorization, only to reverse itself when side effects proved more harmful than beneficial. Another document that showed a coronavirus outbreak at a Georgia summer camp was altered by administration officials who were trying to show that it was safe to reopen schools, the subcommittee said. Caputo and Alexander no longer hold those positions at HHS, according to a report by The Hill.
MMWR editor-in-chief Charlotte Kent told the subcommittee that Alexander “contacted her directly on numerous occasions to pressure her to make changes to MMWRs and to seek a larger role in the review process, in violation of longtime CDC and HHS policy to maintain the independence of these reports,” the letter says.
“Dr. Charlotte Kent’s testimony shows there was no political interference in the MMWR process,” HHS spokesperson Katherine McKeogh said in an email to Medical Design & Outsourcing. “The Administration is leading an unprecedented nationwide vaccination effort in response to a global pandemic and has been extremely cooperative with the Subcommittee — providing over 14,000 pages of documents over the last five weeks and making the Editor-in-Chief of CDC’s MMWRs, Dr. Kent, available for an interview. While the Administration is focused on vaccination shots, the Subcommittee is focused on cheap shots to create headlines and mislead the American people.”
This article has been updated with comments from HHS. Representatives from the CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.