by Issam AHMED
Robert Redfield, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Wednesday he was “disappointed” at “offensive” criticism of his agency over its Covid-19 response by an ally of President Donald Trump.
Redfield’s remarks at a Senate hearing represent some of his strongest public reaction against efforts by members of the Trump administration to undermine and sideline CDC’s globally-esteemed scientists.
The hearing comes as Trump has repeatedly touted the possibility that a vaccine will receive approval before the November 3 election, raising fears that the approval decision could be influenced by politics.
“I want to add how disappointed I have been personally when people at HHS (Health and Human Services) made comments that they felt that there was a ‘deep state’ down at CDC,” Redfield said.
“These are dedicated men and women that are confronting the greatest public health crisis of our time, working 24/7, over 6700 of them involved in the outbreak itself, 1200 deploying, and it’s offensive to me when I hear this type of comment.”
He added that during his 20-year career in the military, he was never aware of his colleagues’ political affiliations and the same was true of the CDC.
“People don’t understand the ability to suck energy out of people that are working 24/7 when they get unfairly criticized or unfairly characterized and really that’s the real harm in all of this,” he concluded.
HHS official Michael Caputo, who previously served on Trump’s 2016 election campaign, told Politico earlier this month he saw his role as vital to stymying “ulterior deep state motives in the bowels” of the CDC.
“Deep state” refers to the idea put forward by Trump that there are hidden powers within the government trying to undermine him.
Caputo later went even further, accusing career government scientists of “sedition” in a Facebook post where he wrote left-wing hit squads were preparing for an armed insurrection.
Caputo has since gone on medical leave.
– Politicization worries –
US experts have expressed worry that the country’s health institutions have become increasingly compromised by political pressure, which could end up costing lives.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC are at the center of the storm.
The two agencies, historically considered above the partisan fray, have earned the broad respect of the international scientific community.
But their decision-making independence has come under question after several controversial moves over the past few months.
The FDA was particularly criticized for its emergency approval of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine against Covid-19, which was subsequently removed over safety fears.
Guidance on CDC’s website meanwhile has been frequently altered for scientifically unclear reasons, such as when it stated that people who are exposed to the virus don’t need a test if they do not have symptoms.
The advice was removed last week following an outcry by experts.
Politico found that Caputo had for months been demanding to revise scientific reports on the virus published in the CDC’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports” — for example on the level of contagiousness among children.
Health officials have recently been engaged in a public relations battle to assure the public that political considerations will play no part in when vaccines receive approval.
Stephen Hahn sought to reassure the Senate on Wednesday, telling lawmakers: “In the end, FDA will not authorize, or approve a vaccine that we would not feel comfortable giving to our families.
“I will fight for science Mr Chairman, I will fight for the integrity of the agency, and I will put the interest of the American people before anything else.”
The FDA process also received the backing of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was not appointed by Trump and is widely-respected for his expertise.
On Wednesday, Johnson & Johnson announced it was entering the final Phase 3 stage of its Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial following positive results in earlier stages.
The trial will seek to enroll up to 60,000 volunteers across more than 200 sites in the US and around the world.
With the move, J&J becomes the tenth maker globally to conduct a Phase 3 trial against Covid-19, and the fourth in the US.