Shared from the 8/29/2020 Star Tribune eEdition

Agencies fumbled virus announcements

WASHINGTON – The credibility of two of the nation’s leading public health agencies was under fire this week after controversial decisions that outside experts said smacked of political pressure from President Donald Trump as he attempts to move past the devastating toll of the corona-virus ahead of the November election.

The head of the Food and Drug Administration grossly misstated, then corrected, claims about the lifesaving power of a plasma therapy for COVID-19 authorized by his agency. Then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly updated its guidelines to suggest fewer Americans need to get tested for the coronavirus, sparking outrage from scientists.

Trump’s own factual misstatements about COVID-19 are well documented, but the back-to-back messaging blunders by public health officials could create new damage, eroding public trust in front-line agencies. That’s already raising concerns about whether the administration will be forthcoming with critical details about upcoming vaccines needed to defeat the pandemic.

“I do worry about the credibility of the FDA and CDC, especially at a time when the capacity of the federal government to advance public health should be a priority for all policymakers,” said Daniel Levin-son, former longtime inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees both the FDA and the CDC.

On Friday, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn removed a conservative public relations official involved in the botched plasma announcement, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

The move came less than two weeks after the White House tapped Emily Miller for the role. Miller previously worked as a reporter for the right-wing One American News Network and as a staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz’s re-election campaign. She did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

Trump administration officials said Wednesday that the CDC testing guidance was revised by the White House virus task force “to reflect current evidence” but did not detail what that was. The new recommendations say it’s not necessary for most people who have been in close contact with infected people, but don’t feel sick, to get tested. Outside experts said that flies in the face of the scientific consensus that wide-scale testing is needed to stamp out new infections.

The week began with Hahn forced to apologize for using an erroneous statistic describing the effectiveness of the blood plasma therapy granted emergency use for COVID-19, as Trump twisted the facts and inflated the significance of the move.

Hahn “hurt his own credibility, he hurt that of his agency and he probably hurt the credibility of the next vaccine that will get approved,” said Daniel Carpenter, a Harvard University professor of government.

The U.S. has invested billions of dollars in efforts to quickly develop multiple vaccines against COVID-19. But public fears that a vaccine is unsafe or ineffective could be disastrous, derailing the effort to vaccinate millions of Americans.

The American Medical Association urged the FDA to set up new processes to keep the medical community in the loop on vaccine developments, warning that public confidence is at stake. The group has also challenged the CDC to produce scientific data to back up its new testing recommendation.

“We need to see light,” said Dr. Susan Bailey, the AMA’s president. “There is a concern that if you are not seeing the data, you have to wonder why.”

HHS spokesman Michael Caputo said in a statement that the government’s health agencies always work with groups like the AMA to keep doctors informed and will continue to do so.

The administration’s Sunday rollout of the news that the FDA had granted emergency authorization for blood plasma in treating COVID-19 was marred by exaggerations and inaccuracies. The plasma, taken from patients who have recovered from the corona-virus, is rich in infection-fighting antibodies, which may benefit those still battling the disease.

Trump described the move as “historic” and touted the plasma’s “incredible rate of success.” But the FDA’s own scientific memo made clear that more research is needed to prove whether it works.

Hahn echoed Trump and Health and HHS Secretary Alex Azar in claiming that 35 more people out of 100 would survive the coronavirus if they were treated with plasma. That figure grossly overstated preliminary findings from Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic.

“There is a concern that if you are not seeing the data, you have to wonder why.” Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, regarding communication from the FDA

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