September 15, 2020 – In a scary and dramatic shift away from normal, the entire process for publishing CDC reports on COVID-19 has been upended by political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for reasons that appear to be entirely political, Politico reported late last week.
Throughout the summer, including as recently as last Friday, HHS appointees have tampered with language in CDC publications on COVID-19, added caveats to downplay scientific findings, and attempted to halt the publication of numerous CDC studies. This is a blatant attempt to censor scientists and their work on some of the important studies that guide our response to a deadly pandemic.
The main HHS appointee involved was Michael Caputo, HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. Caputo has recently gone on the offense against his own scientists in public, accusing them of “sedition” and spreading conspiracy theories in videos posted to Facebook. The actions by Caputo and his team are frankly stunning in how much they overreached to force CDC scientists to tow a political line. For instance, Caputo attempted to retroactively change several already published CDC reports (an action that challenges the entire scientific peer review process), by adding in language that essentially blames people for falling sick with COVID-19 because of their own behavior.
While this egregious step was stopped by CDC officials, HHS political appointees have managed to carry out other measures that have had an impact. For a full month, Caputo and team delayed the release of a CDC report on how doctors were prescribing hydroxychloroquine because they raised questions about the authors’ political leanings.
Caputo and his team have also regularly reviewed CDC reports before publications to stop “ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC” such as intervening in two reports about the risks of the novel coronavirus on children. Caputo has also tried to institute a highly political process for reviewing, even potentially line-editing, studies set to be published in a prestigious and highly influential CDC report series, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports.
This is part of a larger pattern of attacking science
Science should not be attacked in such a manner, especially during a pandemic when we rely on the best available science to quite literally save lives. And yet, this appears to be part of an overarching pattern of the Trump administration to sideline science at the CDC and restrict public access to the latest scientific information from the nation’s top infectious disease experts. We previously carried out an analysis that showed that, as compared to previous epidemics like SARS and H1N1 flu, CDC scientists have been silenced during the COVID-19 era and are facing enormous restrictions in their ability to talk to the public about their own reports, guidelines, and recommendations.
A number of recent actions further showcases how political interference is undermining COVID-19 science. A senior member of Caputo’s team, Paul Alexander, attempted to restrict how Dr. Anthony Fauci talks about COVID-19 and the risks posed to children; Alexander even suggested actions that are clearly dangerous and against the scientific consensus, such as demanding that children not wear masks. Additionally, the CDC was previously pressured by the Coronavirus Task Force to modify their existing testing guidelines to fall out of line with best available science. This resulted in the CDC removing an important science-based recommendation, that people should get tested for the novel coronavirus if they have had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
These actions undermine the public’s trust in science
The main way we going stop the further spread of this devastating virus across the country is by cultivating an environment where the public can place their trust in science. When the public has less faith in science, people will feel less confident in following what scientists say are the best ways to protect their health and safety. For instance, according to a national survey by Johns Hopkins in June, those who doubted science supported social distancing measures 20 percentage points lower relative to those who trusted science. Therefore, these actions by HHS present a threat to people’s health and safety since they erode the public’s trust in science to get us through this pandemic.
Of particular concern is the unprecedented attack on what is considered a cornerstone of the epidemiological research field, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). This report series has been ongoing since 1930 and has been called the “voice of the CDC,” as it represents the “agency’s primary vehicle for scientific publication of timely, reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective, and useful public health information and recommendations.”
It is hard to overstate how important MMWR reports have been for scientific community and how they have helped guide evidence-based actions that protected people from disease threats. For instance the first published report, in 1981, on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the US was a MMWR report. MMWR reports have also played an important role during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance by providing vital information on how the virus spreads in restaurants, religious institutions, and meat processing plants, along with providing evidence that talking and singing can cause people to catch COVID-19.
There has never been a more vital time for scientists to be able to carry out research freely and without political interference. During the pandemic, scientific research can directly lead to lives being saved and people not ending up in the hospital.
Political officials like Caputo and Alexander, who seek to thwart this process for political gain, are shaking the core of how science is reviewed and conducted at the federal government in a way that violates basic aspects of HHS’ scientific integrity policy. Scientists should be able to publish their own work in their own words, and should have the right to review those words to make sure that you, a member of the public, are receiving the most robust data and scientific information available.
The CDC has already faced a barrage of attacks by the current administration, and you can fight back by signing this letter demanding that COVID-19 hospitalization data be brought back to the CDC. We at the Union of Concerned Scientists will keep our eye on these issues and will continue to advocate for scientists to be able to publish and communicate their work without political interference.
Anita Desikan is a research analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists: www.ucsusa.org