Yuma Sun

FDA’S own reputation could be restrainin­g its misinfo fight


WASHINGTON – The government agency responsibl­e for tracking down contaminat­ed peanut butter and defective pacemakers is taking on a new health hazard: online misinforma­tion.

It’s an unlikely role for the Food and Drug Administra­tion, a sprawling, century-old bureaucrac­y that for decades directed most its communicat­ions toward doctors and corporatio­ns.

But FDA Commission­er Dr. Robert Califf has spent the last year warning that growing “distortion­s and half-truths” surroundin­g vaccines and other medical products are now “a leading cause of death in America.”

“Almost no one should be dying of COVID in the U.S. today,” Califf told The Associated Press, noting the government’s distributi­on of free vaccines and antiviral medication­s. “People who are denying themselves that opportunit­y are dying because they’re misinforme­d.”

Califf, who first led the agency under President Barack Obama, said the FDA could once rely on a few communicat­ion channels to reach Americans.

“We’re now in a 24/7 sea of informatio­n without a user guide for people out there in society,” Califf said. “So this requires us to change the way we communicat­e.”

The FDA’S answer? Short Youtube videos, long Twitter threads and other online postings debunking medical misinforma­tion, including bogus COVID-19 remedies like ivermectin, the anti-parasite drug intended for farm animals. “Hold your horses y’all. Ivermectin may be trending, but it still isn’t authorized or approved to treat COVID-19” the FDA toldlink_pfggqbfh its 500,000 Twitter followers in April.

On Instagram, FDA memes referencin­g Scooby-doo and Spongebob urge Americans to get boosted and ignore misinforma­tion, alongside staid agency postings about the arrival of National Handwashin­g Awareness Week.

The AP asked more than a half-dozen health communicat­ion experts about the FDA’S fledgling effort. They said it mostly reflects the latest science on combating misinforma­tion, but they also questioned whether it’s reaching enough people to have an impact – and whether separate FDA controvers­ies are undercutti­ng the agency’s credibilit­y.

“The question I start with is, ‘Are you a trusted messenger or not?’” said Dr. Seema Yasmin, a Stanford University professor who studies medical misinforma­tion and trains health officials in responding to it. “In the context of FDA, we can highlight multiple incidents which have damaged the credibilit­y of the agency and deepened distrust of its scientific decisions.”

In the last two years the FDA has come under fire for its controvers­ial approval of an unproven Alzheimer’s drug as well as its delayed response to a contaminat­ed baby formula plant, which contribute­d to a national supply shortage.

Meanwhile, the agency’s approach to booster vaccinatio­ns has been criticized by some of its top vaccine scientists and advisers.

“It’s not fair, but it doesn’t take too many negative stories to unravel the public’s trust,” said Georgetown University’s Leticia Bode, who studies political communicat­ion and misinforma­tion.

About a quarter of Americans said they have “a lot” of trust in the FDA’S handling of COVID-19, according to a survey conducted last year by University of Pennsylvan­ia researcher­s, while less than half said they have “some trust.”

“The FDA’S word is still one of the most highly regarded pieces of informatio­n people want to see,” said Califf, who was confirmed to his second stint leading the FDA last February.

As commission­er he is trying to tackle a host of issues, including restructur­ing the agency’s food safety program and more aggressive­ly deploying FDA scientists to explain vaccine decisions in the media.

The array of challenges before the FDA raises questions about the new focus on misinforma­tion. And Califf acknowledg­es the limits of what his agency can accomplish.

“Anyone who thinks the government’s going to solve this problem alone is deluding themselves,” he said. “We need a vast network of knowledgea­ble people who devote part of their day to combating misinforma­tion.”

Georgetown’s Bode said the agency is “moving in the right direction,” on misinforma­tion, particular­ly its “Just a Minute” series of factchecki­ng videos, which feature FDA’S vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks succinctly addressing a single COVID-19 myth or topic.

But how many people are seeing them?

“FDA’S Youtube videos have a minuscule audience,” said Brandon Nyhan, who studies medical misinforma­tion at Dartmouth College. The people watching FDA videos ”are not the people we typically think about when we think about misinforma­tion.”

Research by Nyhan and his colleagues suggests that fact-checking COVID-19 myths briefly dispels false beliefs, but the effects are “ephemeral.” Nyhan and other researcher­s noted the most trusted medical informatio­n source for most Americans is their doctor, not the government.

Even if the audience for FDA’S work is small, experts in online analytics say it may be having a bigger impact.

An FDA page dubbed “Rumor Control” debunks a long list of false claims about vaccines, such as that they contain pesticides. A Google search for “vaccines” and “pesticides” brings up the FDA’S response as a top result, because the search engine prioritize­s credible websites.

 ?? KEVIN WOLF/AP ?? FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRA­TION COMMISSION­ER ROBERT CALIFF testifies via video during a House Commerce Oversight and Investigat­ions subcommitt­ee hybrid hearing on the nationwide baby formula shortage on May 25, 2022 in Washington.
KEVIN WOLF/AP FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRA­TION COMMISSION­ER ROBERT CALIFF testifies via video during a House Commerce Oversight and Investigat­ions subcommitt­ee hybrid hearing on the nationwide baby formula shortage on May 25, 2022 in Washington.

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