Trump officials found to be altering scientific reports on COVID-19

By on 15/09/2020 | Updated on 29/09/2022
Emails show that the HHS spokesperson and his team tried to prevent the release of a report which stated that the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine - an anti-malaria drug touted by Trump - "do not outweigh" its risks. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (Creative Commons License).

Politically appointed communications aides have been reviewing and editing COVID-19 reports from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leaked emails have revealed. The interference appears to be an attempt to ensure that reports don’t undermine president Trump’s optimistic messaging about the pandemic.

Politico – which has seen emails from Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) communications staff and three other senior officials familiar with the situation – reported last week that while officials had challenged censorship attempts, they had increasingly allowed aides to review reports and make changes to the wording.

The CDC is a US national public health institute and HHS federal agency, which has for decades been considered one of the most respected authorities on epidemics and pandemics. Its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR), written by career scientists, have served as the main source for US medical professionals, researchers and the public on how COVID-19 is spreading and who is at risk.

According to Politico’s sources, HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official, has driven efforts – which are understood to have begun in May and continued into this month – to align MMWR reports with the president’s statements.

Insider emails state that Caputo and his team have attempted to add caveats to the CDC’s findings. These have included an effort to change agency reports that, his team said, wrongly inflated the risks of coronavirus, and another to prevent the release of a report which stated that “the potential benefits of [hydroxychloroquine drugs] do not outweigh their risks”. Hydroxchloroquine is an anti-malaria drug that Trump has promoted as a potential treatment for COVID-19, despite the lack of evidence.

In one email seen by Politico, sent on 8 August, Paul Alexander, Caputo’s scientific adviser, berated CDC scientists for attempting to use the reports to “hurt the president”.

“CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration,” Alexander wrote, calling on CDC director Robert Redfield to modify two already published reports that, Alexander claimed, wrongly inflated the risks of coronavirus to children and undermined Trump’s push to reopen schools. “CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school re-opening… very misleading by CDC and shame on them. Their aim is clear.”

Alexander also called on Redfield to put an “immediate stop” to all future MMWR reports until he could personally review the entire report prior to publication, rather than a brief synopsis, and make detailed edits. “Nothing is to go out unless I read and agree with the findings,” he wrote in one email.

Asked by Politico why he and his team were demanding changes to CDC reports, Caputo praised Alexander as “an Oxford-educated epidemiologist” who specialises “in analysing the work of other scientists” and added that HHS was appropriately reviewing the CDC’s reports. “Our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic – not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC,” he said.

Widespread condemnation

News of political interference in CDC’s coronavirus reports has been condemned by numerous public health experts.

Dr Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, said in a tweet that if the CDC had been allowed to lead public communications, “Americans would have better understood the risk of COVID and how to protect ourselves and our families. We would have saved lives and jobs”.

Prasad Jallepalli, professor and lab head at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, described MMWR – which has been published for many years – as one of the most important and trustworthy publications in medical research. “Its timeliness, rigor, and impact are among the reasons the CDC is so admired around the world. It’s essential reading in any epidemic or pandemic,” he said. Of attempts to alter the reports, he added “no idea if it’s criminal, but it’s insane”.

Michael Mina, a prominent epidemiologist, immunologist and physician said: “That the US’s most official public health journal would become compromised by politics in the midst of a national public health catastrophe speaks volumes to the insidiousness of this administration”.

And Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, described the situation as a “terrible new low for science in the US”.

Scientist sidelined

Reports of politically appointed officials tampering with scientific reports follow claims by a former US vaccines agency leader that he was demoted after resisting Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine.  

Dr Rick Bright, who had been director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) since 2016, was removed from that post and from his position as the health department’s deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response on 21 April. He has been reassigned to what Bright describes in a statement as a “more limited and less impactful” role at the National Institutes of Health.

“I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” Bright said in the statement. “I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science – not politics or cronyism – has to lead the way.”

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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