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With more than 200,000 Americans having died from the coronavirus, there are still concerns that the Trump administration is interfering with the ability of federal science agencies, including the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, to respond to the crisis. In an alarming exercise of HHS authority, Secretary Alex Azar barred all health agencies from signing any new rules regarding food, medicines, or treatments last week, which could affect the FDA’s oversight over a possible vaccine.
The last week alone has provided more than one example of how political meddling may contribute to mistrust of the nation’s scientific agencies. According to recent news, HHS political appointees have interfered with CDC publications, including weekly research reports and last month’s controversial guidance, reportedly published over the objections of scientists, that it isn’t necessary to test asymptomatic people even if they’d been exposed to the virus. On Friday, the CDC reversed course on those testing guidelines, recommending that individuals without symptoms but who had close contact with someone with Covid-19 should be tested. The CDC also publicly acknowledged that the virus could be transmitted by tiny particles in the air, not just through close contact. But then on Monday, the agency reversed this guidance, removing it from their website and creating more public confusion.
Following this news, members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis requested that Azar release information about how many CDC reports have been edited by HHS officials and whether these edits have come from White House directives. They also requested a briefing with prominent CDC and HHS officials, including the outgoing Michael Caputo and Paul Alexander, concerning this politicization.
Last week, Trump publicly clashed with CDC Director Redfield after Redfield stated during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing that a vaccine would not be available to all Americans until mid to late 2021 and that the CDC currently needed more resources to implement a national vaccine rollout. Trump claimed that Redfield had made a mistake and that a vaccine would be immediately available. The administration released a vaccine distribution plan that same day, which calls for states to submit distribution plans to the CDC by Oct. 16. The plan also says that all Americans will be able to obtain the shot without paying anything out of pocket and sets a timeline similar to what Redfield laid out — with limited vaccines available in late 2020 and a broader push occurring in the next year.
Last week, in response to significant public criticism, including by scientists, over the lack of transparency in the vaccine-development process, Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca, three front-runners in the race for a vaccine, released their vaccine trial plans for the first time. All three plans include details about how participants are selected, the conditions under which trials would be stopped early, and the evidence researchers will use to determine the vaccine’s efficacy. The plans vary in their rigor, based on the number of interim analyses allowed.
U.S. Postal Service documents obtained by American Oversight show an agency in turmoil during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. The documents, reported on by the Washington Post, show a plan to mail masks to every American household, which the Post reported was scrapped by the White House. The findings are concerning in light of ProPublica reporting that thousands of USPS workers have caught the coronavirus, with more than 50,000 of them taking time off for coronavirus-related reasons.
American Oversight and Public Citizen obtained emails showing that the meat industry pressured federal decision-making when it came to keeping meat-processing plants open in the spring. Reported on by USA Today, the emails show that an industry lobbying group shared a draft executive order with Department of Agriculture officials that tracked with much of the content in the president’s April 28 executive order that allowed plants to remain open. Five months later, 42,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for Covid-19.
Reports last week offered more insight into how the Trump administration has obstructed an effective pandemic response. The New Yorker spoke to Olivia Troye, a former member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, who alleged that the president crippled the task force in its early days and deliberately did not take the virus seriously because he was consumed with his reelection campaign. A Vanity Fair report shows that at the same time, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner rejected using federal power to help New York, saying that Gov. Andrew “Cuomo didn’t pound the phones hard enough to get PPE for his state…. His people are going to suffer and that’s their problem.”
A nurse at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Georgia came forward last week to allege that the facility had enabled the spread of the coronavirus through neglectful practices. Administrators and medical professionals in the facility had underreported the number of Covid-19 cases, refused to test symptomatic detainees even when they’d requested tests, and avoided conducting comprehensive testing despite having the necessary equipment. Those actions are consistent with other reports of limited testing in detention centers and a House Homeland Security Committee report that found that ICE facilities “fail to meet basic standards of medical care.”
Prison transfers in Oregon because of the devastating wildfires have heightened the risk of Covid-19 spreading, with incarcerated people being transferred to facilities with high rates of infection. Internal reports and interviews reveal that few protections are in place and little care is being taken to keep people isolated, safe, and in hygienic conditions. At least two of the transported inmates tested positive for coronavirus last week.
Last week, members of Congress wrote to Secretary Azar regarding their investigation into the health department’s newly created “Human Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board.” The board has advised Azar to reject funding from research proposals using fetal tissue, despite the National Institutes of Health having determined that these projects were worthy of funding. Lawmakers are concerned that this board is having a chilling effect on medical research, which during the pandemic is more important than ever.
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