Investigators from the watchdog Government Accountability Office (GAO) spoke to more than a dozen directors and managers who worked at the agencies behind the country’s pandemic guidance.
They unearthed allegations of ‘political interference’ in scientific reports, raising fears that research was tampered with.
In its 37-page report, the GAO warned that neither agency had a system in place for reporting allegations of political interference. It also said they had failed to train staff how to spot and report this.
But health experts were quick to question the claim — buried at the end of an interview with PBS’ NewsHour — suggesting he may have bungled his words and should only have said the nation was in a phase of ‘low hospitalizations’.
In the early phase the White House was accused of waging a war on science, with then-president Donald Trump repeatedly pushing for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports to be amended to support his views, as shown in emails made public by congressional investigators last April.
‘A few respondents from CDC and [Food and Drug Administration] FDA stated they felt that the potential political interference they observed resulted in the alteration or suppression of scientific findings,’ GAO investigators wrote in the report.
‘Some of these respondents believed that this potential political interference may have resulted in the politically motivated alteration of public health guidance or delayed publication of Covid-related scientific findings.’
The GAO report published last week looked into the two agencies, alongside the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — America’s top research institution— and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) — in charge of natural disaster response.
All are part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which in February was branded as at ‘high risk’ for fraud, mismanagement and abuse by the GAO in a separate report.
In the latest report, they defined ‘political interference’ as political influences seeking to ‘undermine impartiality… and professional judgement’.
Investigators said they also set up an anonymous hotline for two months to allow employees to report instances, which received ‘a few calls’.
No specific cases of altering advice were revealed for confidentiality reasons.
But the GAO mentioned in a footnote emails made public by congressional investigators last April that were sent between Trump officials and employees at the CDC.
They suggested the agency had bowed to political pressure over a study in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR) — a notice that documents current trends in U.S. health.
Former scientific advisor to the then-president Paul Alexander wrote in an email from 2020 that he had succeeded in getting the top line in one of its reports changed. He wrote: ‘Small victory, but a victory nonetheless yippee!!!’