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House Democrats launch investigation into alleged political interference in CDC reports

Fighting COVID-19 as flu season nears
Fighting the coronavirus pandemic as flu season nears 04:43

Washington — House Democrats have launched an investigation into allegations that political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services have sought to review and alter weekly scientific reports issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about the coronavirus pandemic.

Democratic members of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis are seeking voluntary testimony from seven officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, including Michael Caputo, the agency's spokesman, and Paul Alexander, his senior adviser.

Politico reported last week that Caputo, who joined the Trump administration in April, and Alexander, who Caputo hired, have attempted to alter or halt the release of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs), which are written by career scientists and prepared by the health agency. According to the CDC, readership of the reports largely consists of medical workers, epidemiologists, scientists and researchers.

"Political appointees' attempts to interfere with CDC's scientific reports, or MMWRs, risk undermining the scientific integrity of these reports and of the CDC itself," the Democrats wrote in a letter Monday to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield.

While experts have relied on the reports during the coronavirus crisis to determine how the virus spreads and who is at risk, "HHS officials apparently viewed these scientific reports as opportunities for political manipulation," they said.

The Democrats are also requesting Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, and Charlotte Kent, the editor in chief of the MMWR, among others, appear before the coronavirus panel, and want the department to turn over a trove of documents.

Caputo said in a statement to CBS News that the public affairs office at the Department of Health and Human Services "clears virtually all public-facing documents for all of its divisions, including CDC."

"Dr. Alexander advises me on pandemic policy and he has been encouraged to share his opinions with other scientists. Like all scientists, his advice is heard and taken or rejected by his peers," he said. "Our intention is to make sure that evidence, science-based data drives policy through this pandemic — not ulterior deep state motives in the bowels of CDC."

Former Trump Campaign Official Michael Caputo To Be Interviewed By Senate Intelligence Committee Staffers
Michael Caputo Mark Wilson / Getty Images

According to Politico, Caputo and his team have sought to retroactively alter CDC reports they claimed incorrectly inflated the risks of the coronavirus and tried to stop the release of others, including one that discussed how doctors were prescribing hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug touted by President Trump as a treatment for the coronavirus. The report on hydroxychloroquine was published last week after it was held up for months, Politico reported. The Food and Drug Administration revoked an emergency authorization for using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID patients in June.
Politico also said in an article published last week that Alexander claimed in an August 8 email that the CDC was "writing hit pieces on the administration." Efforts to influence the reports began after a May report from Schuchat detailed the "rapid acceleration of transmission" of the coronavirus in March and warned the "potential for future acceleration remains."
Public health experts have pushed back on the efforts by Caputo and his aides to interfere with the CDC reports, and House Democrats said they are "gravely concerned" by the reports detailing the efforts to block the MMWRs from the CDC.

"Blatant political interference in CDC's reports on the coronavirus outbreak appears to be just one element in the Trump administration's all-out strategy to, in the president's words, 'play it down,'" the Democrats on the House coronavirus subcommittee wrote.

The lawmakers were referencing newly revealed comments from Mr. Trump in taped interviews with journalist Bob Woodward for his new book, "Rage." In one interview with Woodward on February 7, Mr. Trump admitted the coronavirus is "more deadly" than "even your strenuous flu." In another interview March 19, the president said he "wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic." 

Woodward's book is published by Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS.

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