In a September 14, 2020 letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) expressed concerns about political interference at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawmakers have called for a briefing with Secretary Azar to address these concerns.
The letter was in response to reports from Politico that the politically appointed HHS spokesperson, Michael Caputo, and his aides demanded and received the right to review and solicit changes to CDC’s weekly scientific reports to health professionals on the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic. In some emails to CDC Director Robert Redfield and other senior officials, communications staff even suggested that the agency’s reports would undermine President Trump’s optimistic rhetoric about the pandemic. According to Politico, CDC officials have resisted the most extensive changes, but have increasingly allowed the political officials to review CDC’s reports and, in some cases, allowed changes to the language.
It was also reported that Caputo and his aides attempted to halt the release of certain CDC reports, including delaying by a month a report that addressed hydroxychloroquine - the malaria drug touted by President Trump as a coronavirus treatment. The report found that “the potential benefits of these drugs do not outweigh their risks.”
“We are concerned that this unprecedented attempt to undermine our nation’s public health is either happening with your approval or rogue political appointees are taking actions behind your back,” stated Pallone and DeGette. “Either way, these actions are doing grave harm to the very public health agencies you lead and threatening the health of the nation. Congress and the American people deserve to know if you approved these egregious actions by these political appointees, and if it was done without your knowledge, what actions you will take to ensure that it never happens again. It is long past time that you stand up for public health.”
DeGette and Pallone have demanded a briefing by September 18, 2020, in which they have asked Secretary Azar to address several questions, including whether he will “commit to ensuring that science, and not political considerations, inform HHS’s contributions to the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 pandemic response” and what specific actions will be taken to “prohibit the involvement of political appointees in matters that have been and must be driven by science.”