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Scientists and physicians reacted with words such as “aghast,” “despicable” and “outrageous” over the weekend as news spread that White House appointees interfered with a basic national public health report when it conflicted with President Donald Trump’s coronavirus messaging.
Michael Caputo, the Health and Human Services assistant secretary for public affairs, acknowledged Saturday that since June, he and an advisor have been scrutinizing and at times pushing for changes to a weekly health report distributed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The meddling, first reported by Politico, included efforts to stop the publication of a report last week on the use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug often touted by Trump, delay a 10-state study of COVID-19 infection statistics in June and another on the spread of coronavirus at a Georgia sleep-away camp.
The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is a series of dry and sometimes dense brief reports on public health incidents that comes out on Thursdays. They typically describe specific events or topics and are an important way for doctors and health officials to get the latest data.
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Dr. William Schaffner, who is on the publication’s editorial board, said he was “aghast” and “appalled” by the reported attempts to delay, stop or change reports. He described the publication as a vital part of the global conversation among public health officials who track diseases and dangers.
“It has been the voice of the U.S. government’s health system, of integrity and scientific rigor, for years, said Schaffner, a professor and infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “Indeed, the MMWR has been a model for other countries’ ministries of public health for creating similar newsletters in their countries.”
The interference is not just anti-science but active disinformation intended to deceive the American public, said Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
“This is outright egregious. It’s despicable,” said Topol, adding that Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC, and others in leadership have allowed the agency to be hijacked by politics.
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“What we’re seeing is multiple actors, important people who are just laying down, who are complicit with the anti-science machinations of the Trump administration,” he said.
In an interview Saturday with The Washington Post, Caputo alleged the content of the MMRW, as they’re known, is being politicized by the agency itself.
“But in an election year, and in the time of COVID-19, it’s no longer unanimously scientific. There’s political content,” The Post quoted Caputo as saying.
Scientists and public health officials vehemently disagreed.
Writing on Twitter, Dr. Sherri Bucher, a global health researcher, said: “There are no words