BLOG | COVID-19 Pressure on FDA and CDC Accelerate as Election Nears

Tim Whitehouse

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COVID-19 Pressure on FDA and CDC Accelerate as Election Nears 

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

With the COVID-19 pandemic growing worse, the White House is in hyperdrive to erase all barriers between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the president’s political campaign. The FDA and the CDC, like all federal agencies, are now expected to magnify the president’s political pronouncements, no matter how absurd. 

Fortunately, people are pushing back. 

Here just a few recent examples: 

    • The political flip-flop by the CDC regarding aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2 beyond the six-foot social distance range. It was the third major revision to CDC information or guidelines on the issue published since May. The incorrect CDC guidance furthered the Trump administration’s goal of immediately reopening the country. 
    • Another political flip-flop by the CDC on its recommendation suggesting that people who have come in close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus do not need to get tested if they have no symptoms. This follows the president’s rationale that the number of COVID cases will come down if we have fewer tests 
    • The announcement by Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, a Trump appointee, that he would block the FDA from discharging any new rules regarding the nation’s therapeutics and vaccines without his review.  This would give unprecedented political control over a scientific process.
    • The misrepresentation by Trump, Azar, and current FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn about the effectiveness of convalescent plasma. The Mayo Clinic researchers who authored the study said the FDA “grossly misrepresented” their data. This misrepresentation furthers the president’s efforts to spin science to his advantage. 

While the pushback against political interference may be working in the short term, the Administration’s constant barrages against the FDA and CDC are eroding Americans trust that a COVID-19 vaccine will be safe.  A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 62% of Americans across parties believe that the FDA will cave to political pressurefor premature clearance of COVID-19 vaccines.  Another recent poll found only 47% of U.S. adults across political parties would accept a COVID-19 vaccine if it became available, a fall from 72% acceptance this past April.

The scientists at FDA and the CDC are some of the most respected in the world. But their work is being compromised by political pressure and straining the credibility of these agencies.  

Helping to rebuild public trust in these agencies needs to be a primary goal of a new administration. To do this, Congress, the president and the public need to reaffirm their support for the work of scientists and keep politics out of scientific work. 

Tim Whitehouse, Executive Director of PEERTim Whitehouse is the Executive Director of PEER. Among other things, Tim formerly served as an EPA enforcement attorney. 

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