Political appointees meddled in key virus reports
WASHINGTON — Political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services have repeatedly asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise, delay and even scuttle weekly reports on the coronavirus that they believed were unflattering to President Trump.
Current and former senior health officials with direct knowledge of communication between the agencies said Saturday that meddling from Washington was turning widely followed and otherwise apolitical guidance on infectious disease, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, into a political loyalty test, with career scientists framed as adversaries of the administration.
They confirmed an article in Politico Friday night that the CDC’s public morbidity reports, which one former top health official described as the “holiest of the holy” in agency literature, have been targeted for months by senior officials in the health department’s communications office. It is unclear whether any of the reports were substantially altered, but important federal health studies have been delayed because of the pressure.
The reports are written largely for scientists and public health experts, updating them on trends in all infectious diseases, COVID19 included. They are guarded so closely by agency staff members that political appointees only see them just before they are published.
Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official installed by the White House in April as the top department spokesman, said Saturday that the person most involved in reshaping the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports has been Paul Alexander, an assistant professor of health research at McMaster University in Canada and an adviser Caputo hired to help with him on the science of the pandemic.
“He digs into these MMWRs and makes his position known, and his position isn’t popular with the career scientists sometimes,” Caputo said. “Nobody has been ever ordered to do anything. Some changes have been accepted, most have been rejected. It’s my understanding that that’s how science is played.”
The New York Times interviewed five current and former federal health officials with direct knowledge of efforts to warp the weekly reports. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
In an email obtained by Politico and confirmed by a person with direct knowledge of them, Alexander accused CDC scientists of trying to “hurt the president” with the reports, which he referred to as “hit pieces on the administration.”
The political involvement “undermines the credibility of not only the MMWR but of the CDC,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.