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Public Health Authorities Face Credibility Crisis


Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are facing criticism this week about their responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The New York Times reports that today, the FDA fired top public relations officials. And the CDC has been trying to deal with concerns about political interference in decisions that are usually left to scientists. Joining us with the latest is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hi, Richard.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with the FDA. The head of that agency has been under fire for greatly exaggerating the benefits of a coronavirus treatment involving plasma, which President Trump unveiled Sunday at the White House. Bring us up to speed on that.

HARRIS: Right. The treatment involves taking blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 and infusing it into people who are currently sick. There is some evidence suggesting it could be helpful, but that's not certain. At the White House Sunday, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn falsely claimed it would benefit 35 out of every hundred people. In fact, the data suggested it would benefit a much smaller percentage of patients. Hahn actually admitted his error in a tweet and said the criticism heaped upon him was actually justified.

SHAPIRO: OK. So if he fell on his sword, what's the issue there?

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HARRIS: Well, the Department of Health and Human Services severed ties with a PR consultant who advised Hahn to admit his error. The department says the timing was a sheer coincidence. And at the same time, the New York Times reports that the FDA commissioner fired a top spokesperson, Emily Miller. She'd worked for Republican Senator Ted Cruz and had been at the agency for only 11 days. I talked to professor Paul Argenti at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, who was surprised she'd been hired for that job to begin with.

PAUL ARGENTI: It's really unusual to have a political operative essentially doing public relations around health care issues for an agency that is supposed to be impartial. So - but welcome to the 21st century and the Trump administration.

HARRIS: Argenti says he wonders whether she was fired for helping to hype this new treatment or if she was shoved out for refusing to do even more to spin it.

SHAPIRO: So that's the FDA. We've also been hearing concerns about political pressure at the CDC, which updated its coronavirus testing guidelines this week. How does that fit in?

HARRIS: Well, it's not directly related to the mess at the FDA as far as I can tell except that both agencies are being accused of buckling to political pressure. They're supposed to be driven by science, right? So edits to the testing guidelines had been directed by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The CDC director tried to mollify critics somewhat by softening the language a bit. But major health - public health groups are still calling for much more than that. And in any event, Argenti at Dartmouth says Americans should expect more from these agencies.

ARGENTI: Look; we're taking chances with our health. And, you know, the public health situation is maybe the most important issue of our time. And to not get the facts right and to not be on top of the situation in a way that is in the interests of our national health is just - it's just appalling to me.

HARRIS: Argenti suggests that these leaders, particularly Hahn, should follow the example of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist at the National Institutes of Health. He has managed to maintain his scientific integrity throughout this very challenging time.

SHAPIRO: And it's going to be the FDA that eventually will be called upon to authorize a vaccine for COVID-19, which raises all kinds of questions about political pressure, right?

HARRIS: That's right. And, you know, it needs to assure the public that the decision is based on science, not political influence from a president who keeps telling Americans that we will have a vaccine by the end of the year, if not sooner.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Richard Harris, thank you for following this and explaining it to us.

HARRIS: Anytime, Ari. Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY SOM SONG, "BAYBEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.