Once again, the Trump administration is politicizing something it doesn’t understand.
In this case, Trump officials have been pressing CDC officials to manipulate the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on the spread of COVID-19 to benefit President Trump politically as Election Day draws near.
Scientists described the situation to TPM as “disastrous,” saying that it threatens to undermine a key tool spreading health knowledge around the country while also reflecting a profound lack of understanding about the CDC’s mission.
Dr. Sussan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University, described the CDC reports to TPM as “accumulating information from all over the country, and collecting and answering questions that might not be answerable at the local level.”
Politico first reported the changes over the weekend, which have been taking place throughout the summer.
In recent weeks, HHS spokesman Michael Caputo and an assistant, Dr. Paul Alexander have reportedly pressured CDC scientists into delaying a report that stated the “potential benefits” of hydroxychloroquine does not “outweigh their risks,” after questioning the scientists’ political beliefs.
“An MMWR deals with science and facts, and if that’s inconvenient, I’m sorry,” Hassig said. “That’s the unfortunate reality of science — even as a researcher, if you go in with a particular hypothesis, your data may not show that it’s not correct.”
Dr. Alexander, the Caputo aide, has tried to chip away at scientific understanding in other forums, as well.
In July, Alexander published a paper about research methodology into hydryoxychloroquine. That paper used studies claiming that hydroxychloroquine has low effectiveness and a high risk of side-effects to claim that COVID-19 research has suffered from “overall low methodological quality thus far.”
But undermining the weekly scientific reports from within the federal government, for political reasons, comes as a separate shock.
“The voice of CDC through the MMWR penetrates every single demographic,” said Dr. Lamar Hasbrouck, a former CDC epidemic intelligence service member and former head of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Hasbrouck told TPM that he would rely on the MMWRs while serving at the state health agency, in part because its speed and accuracy made it an “early warning system” for emerging public health risks.
“It makes you feel like it’s going to be directed by political expedience and not by the scientific priorities or the research priorities,” he said. “Once you lose that credibility you have a hard time getting it back.”
The political pressure comes as the Trump administration has contorted other elements of the country’s response to COVID-19 to align with his re-election campaign. Administration officials have referred to a pre-election vaccine as a “holy grail” for the Trump campaign, as President Trump himself has called for a vaccine to be released before the election. The CDC has told states to prepare to distribute a vaccine by late October.
Officials have issued guidance that would lessen the number of COVID-19 tests performed, recommending that people exposed to the disease but who show no symptoms not be tested.
In both those cases, states and local governments have ignored the CDC and begun to prepare to ignore further Trump administration recommendations.
Hassig, the Tulane epidemiologist, pointed out to TPM that the CDC has accommodated political influence in the past — like under the Reagan administration, when the government advocated for abstinence-only methods of preventing HIV transmission, as opposed to the use of condoms.
“That’s a legitimate way of preventing HIV and STI, albeit less popular,” Hassig said. “What’s different now is the perceived personal nature of the attack — the CDC doesn’t have personal vendettas against anybody.”