The CDC’s weekly reports on morbidity and mortality were written by career scientists and serve as the primary tool for the agency to educate doctors, researchers and the general public about the spread of Covid-19 and the threats it poses. Such reports have historically been published with little fanfare and without political interference, several long-time health ministry officials said, and have been viewed as the cornerstone of the country’s public health work for decades.
But since Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official with no medical or scientific background, was appointed as the new Health Department spokesman in April, significant efforts have been made to reconcile the reports with what Trump has said, including those made by the Presidents who fear the outbreak are overrated or who stop the reports altogether.
Caputo and his team have tried to put reservations about the CDC̵
Caputo’s team has also tried to stop the publication of some CDC reports, including delaying a report looking at doctors prescribing hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug Trump favored as a coronavirus treatment, despite little evidence. The report, which lasted about a month after Caputo’s team raised questions about its authors’ political leanings, was released last week. It was said that “the potential benefits of these drugs do not outweigh their risks”.
In one conflict, a Caputo aide berated CDC scientists for attempting to use the reports to “harm the president,” in an August 8 email sent to CDC director Robert Redfield and other officials who widely used within the department and received from POLITICO.
“CDC seems like a hit with the administration to me,” wrote Commissioner Paul Alexander, calling on Redfield to amend two previously published reports that Alexander claimed falsely increased the risk of coronavirus for children and Trump’s efforts to do so Re-opening schools undermine. “CDC has attempted to report as if the children were spreading after the meeting, which would affect the reopening of the school. Very misleading by CDC and shame on them. Your goal is clear.”
Alexander also urged Redfield to discontinue all future MMWR reports until the agency changes their yearlong publishing process so that he can personally review the entire report before it is published, rather than a brief summary. Alexander, an assistant professor of health research at McMaster University in Toronto whom Caputo recruited as his scientific advisor this spring, added that CDC must allow him to make line changes – and called for an “immediate stop“to the reports in the meantime.
“The reports have to be read by someone outside the CDC like me, and we can’t let the coverage go on as it was because it’s outrageous. It’s insane,” Alexander told Redfield and other officials. “There is nothing to be done unless I read and agree with the results as they were written, written and tweaked by CDC to ensure that it is fair and balanced and ‘complete’.”
CDC officials have opposed efforts to amend reports retrospectively, but have increasingly allowed Caputo and his team to review them prior to publication, the three people with knowledge of the situation said. Caputo also helped install the CDC’s interim chief of staff last month, adding two people, to ensure Caputo himself gets more insight into an agency that has often been at odds with HHS political figures during the pandemic.
When asked by POLITICO why he and his team were requesting changes to CDC reports, Caputo praised Alexander as “an Oxford-trained epidemiologist” who specializes in “analyzing the work of other scientists” when he was not promoting him provided an interview.
“Dr. Alexander advises me on pandemic policy and has been encouraged to share his opinion with other scientists. Like all scientists, his advice is heard and accepted or rejected by his colleagues,” Caputo said in a statement.
Caputo also said that HHS is adequately reviewing the CDC’s reports. “Our intent is to ensure that evidence and science-based data are driving policy through this pandemic – not ulterior motives in the depths of the CDC,” he said.
The Caputo team has worked with scientific experts across the administration for months. Alexander tried this week to stop infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci from speaking about the risks of the coronavirus for children, and the Washington Post reported in July that Alexander had criticized the CDC’s methods and results.
However, public health experts told POLITICO that they were particularly alarmed that the CDC’s reports could be subject to political interference, praising the MMWRs as essential to fighting the pandemic.
“It is the public health stop for information that has been scientifically verified,” said Jennifer Kates, who leads the Kaiser Family Foundation’s global health effort. In an interview with POLITICO, Kates rattled off nearly a dozen examples of MMWR reports that she and other researchers relied on to determine how Covid-19 spread and who is at greatest risk, including reports on how that Virus has been transmitted in nursing homes, in churches and among children.