Health Officials Subpoenaed in Probe of Political Interference at CDC

President Donald Trump watches as CDC Director Robert Redfield holds up his face covering while speaking about the coronavirus at the White House in April. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Democratic leader of a House panel overseeing the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic said Monday that Trump administration health officials tried to bury alarming information in scientific reports on the outbreak.

Congressman Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said in a letter that he has subpoenaed Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Clyburn wants to get unredacted documents that he says show efforts by appointees of President Donald Trump to “block or alter” over a dozen CDC reports on the pandemic and hydroxychloroquine, a drug the president touted for months as a possible treatment despite a lack of medical evidence.  

“These appointees targeted reports that provided evidence of the virus’s ‘early spread’ across the country and ‘massive spread’ this summer, which they believed sent ‘the wrong message’ about the Administration’s policies,” the letter states. “These appointees also drafted rebuttals aimed at undercutting CDC’s credibility and providing ‘very re-assuring information … for the White House.’”

One of the draft rebuttals, which was never published, reportedly attacked a CDC report on an increase in prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine after the drug’s emergency use authorization was revoked based on findings of potential harms outweighing the benefits. According to the letter, the rebuttal drafted by HHS officials stated that the hydroxychloroquine report “presents factual information with an agenda” and could “prevent the news from giving the proper coverage of a true ‘miracle cure.’”

Clyburn said the subpoenas come after three months of obstruction by the administration and evidence showing Redfield ordered subordinates to delete an email about a report on the risk of Covid-19 to children.

“Top political officials at HHS and CDC not only tolerated these efforts, but in some cases aided them—even after a senior career official warned that CDC’s scientific writing ‘needs to remain an independent process’ and that the administration’s attempts to influence these reports violated ‘long-standing policy,’” the letter states.

The 20-page letter cites several internal documents obtained by the House committee, including communications between CDC members over a report on an outbreak at a Georgia summer camp that showed “massive spread” at the facility while the White House was touting a plan to reopen schools.

“I find it incredible this piece would be put out the way it is written at a time when CDC and its leader Dr. Redfield is trying to showcase the school re-open guidance and the push is to help schools re-open safely,” Paul Alexander wrote in a July email obtained by the committee. “It just sends the wrong message as written and actually reads as if to send a message of not to re-open.”

Alexander joined the Department Health and Human Services in April but has since been let go. According to a Politico report, he spent much of his short tenure advocating for herd immunity, which would require most Americans to get infected by the virus. Experts estimate that strategy would lead to 1 to 2 million deaths.

“There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD,” Alexander wrote in a different July email obtained by Politico. Despite Alexander’s push, Azar told Congress in October that “herd immunity is not the strategy of the U.S. government with regard to coronavirus.”

Clyburn’s committee also seeks to explore claims that staff scientists were bullied after they shared information the Trump administration did not want spread. 

“If you disobey my directions, you will be held accountable,” HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael R. Caputo wrote in a July email warning several communications staffers after CDC epidemiologist Daniel Pollock did an interview with NPR in which he was critical of a White House policy telling hospitals to bypass the CDC and send its Covid-19 data to a different database.

The subpoenas have a document turnover deadline of Dec. 30.

CDC and HHS officials, as well as Republican members of the coronavirus committee, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.  

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