Government agency will investigate Trump administration political influence over FDA, CDC

Savannah Behrmann and Matthew Brown, USA TODAY
·4 min read

WASHINGTON – An independent government watchdog agency has agreed to investigate alleged political influence from the Trump administration over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

The Government Accountability Office, an independent legislative agency that investigates, audits and evaluates government operations for Congress, accepted a Senate request on Monday to examine potential political interference and "determine whether this interference has violated the agencies’ scientific integrity and communication policies.”

"We expect the work will start in January, as staff who cover those issues become available," Charles Young, a spokesman for GAO, told USA TODAY.

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Both agencies have been caught in political crossfire since the start of the pandemic, as preventative health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and the effectiveness of different drugs in combating the COVID-19 outbreak have become politicized.

President Donald Trump and others in the administration have publicly contradicted health experts at both agencies on such issues, hurting the agencies' credibility.

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The GOA move comes after Democratic Sens. Patty Murray, Gary Peters and Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter asking the agency to "determine whether the CDC and FDA’s scientific integrity and communications policies have been violated" amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

The senators requested the investigation earlier this month following reports of political meddling in the coronavirus response at both the FDC and CDC, including a report by the New York Times found that the White House blocked new coronavirus vaccine guidelines for non-scientific reasons.

Trump repeatedly has stated a vaccine is coming "momentarily" and would be ready for distribution in time for Election Day, despite health officials saying publicly that is unlikely.

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In June, the FDA revoked its emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine, a controversial malaria drug, after Trump had called for and promoted it despite little evidence of success. The agency said the drug posed a greater risk to patients than any potential benefits.

Additionally, White House appointees have reportedly interfered with basic national public health reports and information coming out of the agencies when it conflicted with Trump's coronavirus messaging.

"The CDC and FDA’s independence as scientific agencies is crucial to safeguarding the public health and saving lives. These agencies must be able to develop, review, and disseminate public health data, guidelines, and other information that are based on science, facts, and medical principles – and not the political imperatives and moods of a president and his advisors," the Democrats said in their request.

In early October, a House Oversight subcommittee also opened its own investigation into potential political interference around coronavirus messaging.

The subcommittee took particular aim at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a subagency within the Executive Office of the President.

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“We are concerned the process lacks clear structure, gives undue weight to the opinions of non-expert political appointees, weakens guidance, and delays its publication,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illin., Chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, said in a press release.

Since the start of the pandemic, the CDC and FDA have been under fire for purportedly mixed messaging on social distancing, mask-wearing and reported COVID-19 statistics.

More: How the CDC failed public health officials fighting the coronavirus

"The GAO's decision to conduct an independent audit is a good first step towards making sure that guidance coming from federal agencies is based on science and facts, not on the Trump Administration's political agenda or the President's whims," the senators said in a statement.

They continued, "Health and science experts should be able to do their jobs to steer us through crises like this pandemic without political interference, and we must ensure that the American people receive fact-based information so that they can make well-informed decisions for themselves and their families amidst this national public health emergency."

The GAO said the investigation is expected to take approximately three months.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GAO will investigate Trump administration influence over FDA, CDC