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Are U.S. medical experts being influenced by the Trump administration?

Questions are again being raised about whether the Trump administration is injecting politics into science -- and the national pandemic response. Recent moves by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appear to conflict with the medical community’s consensus on handling COVID-19. William Brangham talks to Dr. Thomas Frieden, former head of the CDC.

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  • Stephanie Sy:

    Two recent moves, one by the Food and Drug Administration, the other by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have again raised questions about whether the Trump administration is injecting politics into the nation's pandemic response.

    William Brangham has the latest.

  • William Brangham:

    The first instance happened on Sunday night, when President Trump and the head of the FDA, Dr. Stephen Hahn, came forward to announce the emergency approval of convalescent plasma as a COVID-19 treatment.

    Hahn overstated how effective the treatment was and, after much criticism, had to walk back his comments.

    Then yesterday, the CDC changed its guidance on who should be getting tested for coronavirus. Without explanation, it removed its earlier advice that people with no symptoms get tested, even if they have been exposed to the virus.

    I'm joined now by Dr. Thomas Frieden. He ran the CDC for eight years, and he's now the head of a global health initiative called Resolve to Save Lives.

    Dr. Frieden, great to see you again.

    Could you just — what is your sense? What do you make of these two changes? Is this just par for the course for science, or is there something more troubling going on here?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    This is not par for the course. This is unprecedented.

    And, William, the fact is that the virus does not respond to spin. The virus responds to science. And these two moves taken together are very concerning.

    They're concerning in particular for what's going to happen in the coming weeks and months with the rollout of a vaccine against COVID, because although a vaccine is the single most important thing we can have to protect ourselves against the virus, it's not going to be quick, it's not going to be simple, and getting people to take a vaccine requires a lot of trust and confidence.

    And these are two moves that have undermined confidence of the public health community, of the scientific community, and I'm afraid of the broader community as well.

  • William Brangham:

    On this issue of the testing change with the CDC, as I mentioned, you ran the CDC for many years.

    Two news outlets today reported that pressure from the Trump administration came down to make that change. Do you really believe, knowing the men and women who run the CDC and make up its scientific cadre, that that's really possible that that kind of pressure could be exerted and would have this effect?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    I cannot a remember a single incident in my nearly eight years running the CDC or nearly 20 years working at the CDC where any entity other than the CDC got something put on the CDC Web site.

    Unfortunately, that has happened repeatedly in the current administration. And that's dangerous, because it undermines confidence in what has been one of our most trusted and trustworthy public health institutions.

  • William Brangham:

    Admiral Brett Giroir, who is running the testing, sort of the testing czar for the Trump administration's Coronavirus Task Force, said today that there was no pressure involved.

    I'm going to read a quote from him. He said: "There was no weight on the scales by the president or the vice president or Secretary Azar" of HHS. He says: "This was a product produced by the scientific and medical people that was discussed extensively at the task force."

    So, if we take him at his word and there wasn't pressure, do you believe the science merits not testing people who are asymptomatic? That, thus far, has been a public health strategy that we all know.

  • Thomas Frieden:

    Let's be frank. We don't have enough tests. The administration perhaps doesn't want to say that, but there aren't enough tests that can come back in a meaningful time frame, one or two days.

    Therefore, we have to prioritize. That's reasonable. Symptomatic people, people who are in congregate facilities, like nursing homes, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, meatpacking plants, where you can have massive outbreaks, are higher priority.

    Some asymptomatic people are at lower priority. If a college wants to test every kid coming back to campus, that's not a high priority when we have limited tests.

    But a contact of someone who has COVID is high priority, because they may have the infection without having symptoms. They may actually be the source of the infection, without knowing that they have it. And you can't stop chains of transmission unless you can find chains of transmission.

    So it's really not defensible to say that asymptomatic contacts should not be tested.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's turn to this issue of convalescent plasma and Dr. Hahn seemingly to make a fairly basic scientific mistake in overstating the effectiveness of that.

    He later, as I mentioned, walked that statement back.

    Do you just chalk that up to a mistake, or, again, with that particular issue, do you see something else afoot?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    There's no question that there was a desire to describe this as a major breakthrough, when, in fact, what we have is a 100-year-old treatment that may work somewhat for some patients.

    And whether or not an emergency use authorization is justified, the bottom line is, we're not going to be able to learn how to help patients most if this kind of politics is played with science. We have to do careful studies. Maybe certain antibodies work better than others. Maybe certain patients will be benefited more than others.

    Maybe it's only useful in the first day or two after people get sick. We don't know that. And now we may not know it for even longer. This is about figuring out how to control COVID, not how to control the news cycle.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Thomas Frieden, former head of the CDC, and now CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, thank you very much again.

  • Thomas Frieden:

    Thank you, William.

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