August 16, 2020 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

The Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 has been disastrous in large part because President Trump and his appointees are attacking and undermining science rather than heeding it (a problem I’ve written about here, here, and here). Recently, public health experts and supporters have issued several letters to the Trump administration urging it to do a better job using evidence, data, and scientific experts to control coronavirus spread.

Last month, when the White House circulated talking points to journalists criticizing National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, nearly 3,500 leading public health experts signed a letter calling on President Trump to refrain from sidelining science or scientists. The letter — which was organized by former FDA associate commissioner Peter Lurie, who now heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist and longtime AIDS activist Gregg Gonsalves — states, “Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has remained one of the world’s most trusted scientists on COVID-19, daily explaining in lay terms the complexity of an illness we still don’t fully understand. And he has done so by placing science front and center in the public discourse. Attempting to marginalize highly respected researchers such as Dr. Fauci is a dangerous distraction at a time when we most need voices like his.”

HHS’s July requirement that hospitals abruptly shift their COVID data reporting from the established CDC mechanism to a new system run by a private contractor for HHS has not resulted in smooth implementation. Letters urging the agency to reverse this problematic change came from 22 state attorneys general; more than 100 public health, science, research and medical organizations; and 27 public-interest organizations. Last week, the New York Times reported on a letter that 34 current and former members of the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee — including several appointed or reappointed by HHS Secretary Alex Azar — had sent to the Trump administration, warning of “serious consequences on data integrity” under the new system.

In another letter organized by CSPI, nearly 400 experts emphasize the need for FDA to conduct full safety and efficacy reviews of potential COVID-19 vaccines before any of them become widely available, and call for a “transparent and rigorous FDA approval process that is devoid of political considerations.”

General calls for the Trump administration to stop denigrating evidence and expertise come from Congress as well as scientists. Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, wrote to President Trump warning that his “continued anti-science rhetoric has cost lives and continues to put the health and wellbeing of every person in this country at risk.” And a letter from members of the US National Academy Sciences, which began as a response to Trump’s sidelining of climate scientists, has garnered a slew of new signatures as the administration’s disastrous COVID response has provided another example of how ignoring science endangers public health. “Scientific evidence and research should be an important component of policymaking,” reads the letter, which has more than 1,200 signatories. The NASEM members call on the federal government to appoint qualified people to positions requiring scientific expertise and “cease censorship and intimidation of Government scientists.”

Based on the Trump administration’s apparent disregard for experts, I don’t know how much difference these letters will make. But it’s important to have them in the public record, and if the outcry spreads widely enough perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will acknowledge that a stronger Congressional response is warranted.

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