Health and Science

Clyburn says select subcommittee testimony shows political interference at CDC

Heidi Przybyla and Monica Alba
U.S. House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee Chairman James E. Clyburn (D-SC).
Graeme Jennings | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic is demanding more information from top officials in the administration after a career employee at the Centers for Disease Control testified about a political appointee's efforts to "alter or rescind" information considered damaging to President Donald Trump.

In a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Robert Redfield, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., writes that the testimony raises "serious concern about what may be deliberate efforts by the Trump Administration to conceal and destroy evidence that senior political appointees interfered with career officials' response to the coronavirus crisis" at the CDC.

The letter reveals that on Monday, Dr. Charlotte Kent, Chief of the Scientific Publications Branch and Editor-in-Chief of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, stated in closed-door testimony that she had been instructed to destroy an email and that she understood the order came from Redfield.

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In the Aug. 8 internal email to Kent and other health officials, previously reported by Politico, Dr. Paul Alexander demanded the CDC insert new language in a previously published scientific report on coronavirus risks to children.

"CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school reopening. ... Very misleading by CDC and shame on them. Their aim is clear. ... This is designed to hurt the president for their reasons which I am not interested in," read the email.

Alexander is an assistant professor of health research at McMaster University near Toronto who served as a scientific adviser to Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official with no medical or scientific background who became an HHS spokesman.

Kent stated that she received a call the following morning from another career official instructing her to delete the email at the request of Dr. Redfield. She said she did not speak directly to Redfield but understood the direction came from him. When Kent tried to find the email, she said it had already disappeared, according to committee aides who briefed reporters.

The CDC is among the key agencies responsible for communicating with the public about the Covid-19 pandemic. Scientists have long maintained a firewall around their findings and reports to prevent political interference.

Clyburn is seeking to interview Redfield regarding the allegation, as well as additional document production by Dec. 15, and plans to issue a subpoena if Trump officials don't meet the deadline. The Federal Records Act requires federal officials to preserve certain documents and makes certain intentional efforts to destroy them illegal, Clyburn's office warned in the letter.

Neither Redfield nor Azar immediately responded to requests for comment on the letter.

After the "troubling" testimony by Kent, HHS "abruptly canceled" four transcribed interviews the select subcommittee had scheduled with other CDC employees, part of a broader pattern of "obstruction" that includes failure to deliver key documents to the subcommittee, said Clyburn.

The incident is not isolated, Clyburn continued in the letter. Kent also testified that CDC delayed publication of an article regarding coronavirus outbreak at a Georgia summer camp to ensure it would not become public until after Redfield's July 31 testimony before the committee. At the hearing Redfield testified he believed schools should reopen for "face-to-face learning" in September of this year and did not discuss the report showing significant virus spread at the camp.

It's not the first time Redfield, who has been director since March 2018, has been accused of allowing politics to influence the agency. In August, the CDC modified testing guidelines to no longer encourage asymptomatic people to get tested, sparking a strong backlash from top scientists.

In September, emails obtained by Politico showed Alexander instructing press officers and others at the National Institutes of Health about what Dr. Fauci should say during media interviews.