Senate Democrats urge HHS internal watchdog to probe political interference in COVID-19 response

getty: Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci

Senate Democrats on Thursday pressed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) internal watchdog to open a probe into claims that officials in the agency interfered in the government’s response to the coronavirus for political purposes.

The 30 Democrats said in the letter they were alarmed over media reports that political appointees in HHS looked to downplay the threat of the pandemic and change language in reports to more closely align with President Trump’s rosy view that the virus would be easily defeated. 

“We are writing to express our alarm regarding reports of widespread and ongoing political interference in our nation’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” they wrote. 

“The consistent pattern running through these reports of political interference is the ongoing effort to minimize the seriousness of the virus. This message directly harms millions of Americans and jeopardizes public trust in science and our COVID-19 response,” they continued. “To safeguard the health and well-being of all Americans during this ongoing pandemic, we ask that you immediately open an investigation into political interference with the scientific work done by experts at HHS.” 

The letter cited a number of reports over interference in HHS’s response and messaging, including articles revealing that HHS officials sought to alter the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports and that HHS Secretary Alex Azar overruled the FDA when he revoked the body’s power to regulate COVID-19 tests.

The lawmakers expressed concern that the growing pile of reports could undermine the public’s faith in health agencies, particularly as polls show adults do not fully trust Trump’s remarks regarding the safety of a potential vaccine. 

“In the midst of a pandemic that has now claimed over 200,000 lives in the United States alone, the American people rely on the expertise of our federal agencies to keep them safe,” they wrote. “Public confidence in the scientific process is especially critical as the FDA reviews COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The American people must trust the review process is rigorous, science-driven, and apolitical.

“Now more than ever, stopping political pressure from undermining public health experts is literally a matter of life and death,” they added.

The lawmakers specifically requested Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general, investigate a number of questions, including to what extent “political interference had on the work of public health experts” and if “any complaints [had] been filed or issues [had] been raised with the designated scientific integrity official” regarding the alleged interference.

HHS swatted away the letter, maintaining that the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has always been driven by science.

“This is yet another attempt by some on Capitol Hill to undermine and discredit the historic work of the Trump Administration to combat COVID-19,” an HHS spokesperson told The Hill. “Under President Trump, HHS has always provided public health information based on sound science. Throughout the COVID-19 response, science and data have driven and will continue to drive the decisions at HHS.”

Tags Alex Azar Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Christi Grimm COVID-19 pandemic Donald Trump Donald Trump Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report United States Department of Health and Human Services White House coronavirus task force

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