October 19, 2020

At Warren, Peters, and Murray Request, Independent Watchdog Agrees to Investigate Trump Administration Political Interference at FDA and CDC

Response from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) here

Senators' initial request to GAO here

Washington, DC - At the request of United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the HELP Committee, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the independent arm of Congress, has agreed to conduct an investigation of the Trump Administration's political interference at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and to determine whether this interference has violated the agencies' scientific integrity and communication policies.

"The GAO's decision to conduct an independent audit is a good first step towards making sure that guidance coming from federal agencies is based on science and facts, not on the Trump Administration's political agenda or the President's whims," said the senators. "Health and science experts should be able to do their jobs to steer us through crises like this pandemic without political interference, and we must ensure that the American people receive fact-based information so that they can make well-informed decisions for themselves and their families amidst this national public health emergency."

The senators' call for a review of political interference at the FDA and CDC follows troubling reports of persistent and widespread political interference in both agencies' COVID-19 response, resulting in public confusion and distrust of important health information critical to helping mitigate the spread of the virus.

After reports broke that FDA was close to issuing strict guidelines for authorizing COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, for instance, President Trump said that the plan "sounds like a political move, while he continued to suggest the agency would greenlight a vaccine by Election Day. The guidance was ultimately released, but only after news broke of the White House's attempts to block it.

Other reports show the White House pressured the CDC into downplaying risks associated with children returning to in-person learning at schools and that HHS political appointees reviewed and may have altered or delayed weekly scientific reports issued by CDC about the pandemic. HHS political appointees and the White House Coronavirus Task Force also reportedly published guidance to the CDC's website, without approval from the CDC, recommending that asymptomatic individuals do not need to be tested for COVID-19, even after exposure to someone with COVID-19. This guidance was then reversed.

Earlier this month, the lawmakers also led 27 of their Senate colleagues, calling for the HHS inspector general to investigate these serious reports of political interference with the scientific processes at HHS during the COVID-19 response.

The lawmakers have asked the GAO to address a series of questions in its review, including whether the CDC and FDA have identified violations of the scientific integrity and communications policies during the COVID-19 pandemic; the extent to which such violations involved and have impacted CDC and FDA scientists' efforts to correct public statements made by Administration officials; policies, procedures, and training requirements for maintaining scientific integrity at the CDC and FDA related to political interference; employee awareness of the CDC and FDA's scientific integrity and communications policies, including the process for reporting potential violations; what current structures are in place at these agencies to allow them to independently carry out their missions.