09.01.20

Baldwin, Colleagues Call for Immediate HELP Committee Hearing with CDC & FDA Heads to Investigate Trump Administration's Politicization of COVID-19 Response

WASHINGTON, D.C. U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and other members of the Committee sent a letter to HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) requesting that the Committee hold an immediate hearing with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield addressing the Trump administration's politicization of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic response and the undue political influence of the White House on these public health agencies.

The letter was led by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and also signed by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Doug Jones (D-AL), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV).

“It is essential that the federal government develop and implement public health policies that are guided by science, facts, and medical principles - not the political whims of the President,” wrote the senators. “Yet, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration has reportedly repeatedly pressured the FDA and CDC into decisions based on political motivations rather than sound public health principles and scientific evidence.”

Just last week, the CDC quietly weakened guidance on asymptomatic COVID-19 testing against recommendations outlined by public health experts. President Trump has repeatedly pushed to “slow the testing down” and appears to have prioritized artificially lowering the official COVID-19 case count over enacting proven public health measures to contain the spread of the virus - saying “testing is a double-edged sword” and noting that “when you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people; you're going to find more cases.” CDC’s new testing guidance released this week called for significantly fewer people to get tested - and public health experts criticized it as being “in contradiction of common sense ... contradict[ing] what we know about how to stop the spread of the pandemic.” A CDC official told the press that the change “[came] from the top down” and was driven by “pressure from the upper ranks of the Trump Administration.” After the criticism, CDC Director Redfield issued a statement walking back the new guidelines but did not formally reverse them, leading to even more confusion. 

And earlier this week, the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) under questionable circumstances for the use of convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19, after Dr. Peter Navarro, a key White House official, reportedly accused FDA scientists of serving the “Deep State,” and President Trump accused FDA officials of “slow-walking the therapy to harm his reelection chances.” The agency issued the EUA despite warnings from top government scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, who urged the agency not to move forward without more convincing effectiveness data. 

“This past week ... appears to represent a low point for the Administration's ability to let sound public health principles guide the response to the pandemic,” wrote the senators.

The actions taken this week represent a pattern that has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic. In March 2020, the FDA issued a EUA for hydroxychloroquine after receiving pressure to do so from President Trump. Less than a month later, FDA warned that hydroxychloroquine is “neither safe nor effective” for treating COVID-19 and should not be used outside of hospitals and clinical trials, and it revoked the EUA altogether on June 15.

In May, the administration reportedly shelved draft CDC guidance for churches and other places of worship, then abruptly reversed course after President Trump warned them that “you better put it out.” In July, President Trump and Vice President Pence once again exerted public pressure on the CDC to revise its guidelines, this time for schools. The CDC issued new guidance in response to this pressure.

“This politicized decision process has resulted in an ongoing, tragic failure to contain the virus, costing tens of thousands of American lives, plunging the economy into a recession, and damaging the integrity of CDC and FDA as these agencies make critical decisions about COVID-19 treatments and vaccines,” wrote the senators.

The politicization of our nation's science agencies is dangerous and could make already fraught agency decisions about vaccines, treatments, and other efforts to stop the pandemic even more difficult. The senators said the Senate HELP Committee must seek answers from Dr. Hahn and Director Redfield about undue political influence in the COVID-19 response and hold a hearing immediately. 

The full letter is available here.