A leading group of infectious disease specialists called White House efforts to discredit the nation's top infectious disease expert "disturbing" Tuesday, while four former heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chastised U.S. leaders they say are politicizing the country's Covid-19 response.
Reports of the Trump administration's campaign to discredit and diminish the role of White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading voices in the country's response to the coronavirus, "at this perilous moment are disturbing," Thomas M. File Jr., president of the Infectious Disease Society of America, said in a statement issued Tuesday.
"The only way out of this pandemic is by following the science, and developing evidence-based prevention practices and treatment protocols as new scientifically rigorous data become available. Knowledge changes over time. That is to be expected," File said in his statement in support of Fauci on Tuesday.
Comments Thursday by both Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and President Donald Trump revealed the apparent rift between them has widened.
Fauci told the Financial Times in an interview that he hasn't seen Trump at the White House since early June and hasn't briefed him on the pandemic in at least two months.
Trump told Fox News that "Dr. Fauci's a nice man, but he's made a lot of mistakes."
"They've been wrong about a lot of things, including face masks," Trump said in the interview. "Maybe they're wrong, maybe not. A lot of them said don't wear a mask, don't wear a mask. Now they're saying wear a mask. A lot of mistakes were made, a lot of mistakes."
The Trump administration has increasingly disregarded advice from its top scientific advisors on Covid-19, with Trump himself calling the CDC's guidelines on school reopenings too cumbersome and expensive.
The White House further tried to distance itself from and discredit Fauci over the weekend, saying "several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things," according to a statement first reported by The Washington Post. The White House pointed to comments and positions taken by Fauci early in the outbreak that he has since changed.
File, of the Infectious Disease Society, said "all of America must support public health experts, including Dr. Fauci, and stand with science" if there's any hope of ending the pandemic.
Dr. Howard Bauchner, the editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA, said in an open letter issued Tuesday that the "whisperings, innuendos, and attacks from the White House and others" about Fauci are "not only unseemly and unfair, but reveal a lack of commitment to the health and well-being of all Americans."
"The undermining of science – and the unprecedented attacks on scientists and public health officials – risk lives in every corner of our country," Bauchner said in the letter.
Separately, past directors of the CDC also criticized the Trump administration for dismissing advice from public health officials in an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Tuesday. Four former CDC directors wrote that the U.S. faces "two opponents" in its efforts to reopen the country: Covid-19 and politicians and others attempting to undermine the CDC.
"It is not unusual for CDC guidelines to be changed or amended during a clearance process that moves through multiple agencies and the White House. But it is extraordinary for guidelines to be undermined after their release," wrote the former CDC directors: Tom Frieden, who served under former President Barack Obama; Jeffrey Koplan, who served under former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; David Satcher, who served under Clinton, and Richard Besser, who served under Obama.
"Through last week, and into Monday, the administration continued to cast public doubt on the agency's recommendations and role in informing and guiding the nation's pandemic response," they said.
The former CDC directors, while not naming Fauci, noted that there are "thousands of experts" at the CDC who are "best positioned to help our country emerge from this crisis." However, their advice has been challenged with "partisan potshots" that have caused confusion, the former directors said. The CDC and NIH are both divisions under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The rebuke from the former directors comes after Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent days pressuring schools to reopen amid a surge in Covid-19 cases nationwide. Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from states that don't reopen their schools.
Vice President Mike Pence confirmed Wednesday that the Trump administration is looking to the upcoming phase four coronavirus relief bill as a potential way to exert leverage over schools.
"As the debate last week around reopening schools more safely showed, these repeated efforts to subvert sound public health guidelines introduce chaos and uncertainty while unnecessarily putting lives at risk," the former directors wrote.