“We have been gagged”: CDC sources say White House puts politics above science


(CNN) – During the first weeks of the epidemic coronavirus in United States, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have tracked an increasing number of transmissions Europe and elsewhere, and proposed a global warning that would alert travelers to the dangers of air travel.

But it took about a week for the alert to be made public: a considerable time lost since nearly 66,000 European travelers entered American airports. every day.

The delay, detailed in documents obtained by CNN, is the most recent example of a growing feeling of disconnection between the CDC and the White House.

In interviews with CNN, CDC officials noted that their agency’s efforts to organize a coordinated response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been hampered by a White House which makes decisions based on the Politics and not for science.

The result worsened the effects of the crisis, sources within the CDC said, and relegated the 73-year-old agency – traditionally responsible for leading the national response to infectious diseases – to a supporting role.

President Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, and CDC director Robert Redfield during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 6.

The growing tensions between the CDC leadership and the White House over the perception that the agency has been sidelined represent a story that has been playing out in the media for weeks. But now middle and high ranking officials in the agency – six of whom have spoken to CNN for the story – have started to express their dissatisfaction. The six members mentioned all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“We have been gagged,” said a CDC official. “The difficult thing is that if we had acted earlier on what we knew and recommended, we would have saved lives and money.”

When did the relationship start to deteriorate?

Sources say the source of the trust problems between the CDC and the White House dates back to the agency’s unsuccessful efforts to distribute coronavirus testing in early February, when contamination in the laboratory caused long delays. The relationship between the two sides deteriorated further later in the month after Nancy Messonnier, a senior CDC official, warned the Americans – at a time when President Donald Trump was out of the country and the threat minimized – that “the disruption of daily life could be serious”.

New CDC guidelines in the United States 2:22

The consequences have been tangibly disclosed to the American public.

One of them, who caused consternation within the agency, involved the delayed travel warning in early March.

As Covid-19 spreads worldwide, a CDC internal daily report, dated March 2, attributed Italy to the spread in the European region, but also noted “evidence of local transmission in 29 other countries” . Then, in a follow-up report two days later, “85 international sites” had reported cases.

This is what the façade of the Edward R. Roybal campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta looks like.

On March 5, with three of the top six countries outside China affected by the disease in Europe, the CDC expected to publish a world travel alert That same night, according to an agency document which stressed that the alert had been authorized internally.

Although the CDC has already issued travel warnings for specific countries – such as China, Italy, Iran and South Korea – the proposed alert would have prompted care to be taken to visit any part of the world.

But it didn’t happen that night. For inexplicable reasons, the expected travel alert was released on March 5 and was not released until March 11, the same day that Trump announced strict restrictions on flights from more than two dozen countries. Europeans.

Asked about the discrepancy, a Trump administration official noted that the CDC issued warnings and alerts in early March for specific countries with coronavirus outbreaks.

The head of administration also argued that the CDC is one of the many agencies that make up the White House Coronavirus task force, and that the views of this entity have always been represented at group meetings , in addition to Include yourself in what was presented at the White House virus briefings.

The CDC did not respond to several requests for comment on the issue of the travel warning, or on the broader allegation that the agency was shelved.

White House focused on China rather than Europe, sources say

A senior CDC official told CNN that the agency had also alerted the government to the rapid spread of the virus in Europe, but added that “the White House was extremely focused on China and did not want to irritate Europe. .. despite the fact that from then on Most of our business came from the origin. ”

Some experts say the worst consequence of the frayed relationship is the general feeling that the CDC has lost its place as the face and voice of public health in a pandemic that was not seen 100 years ago.

Trump visits the CDC in a red campaign cap 3:24

“The CDC … made some mistakes with the first test problems, and it looked like they didn’t trust them that much after that,” said James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and former official of the CDC. However, he added: “There is no place in the world where more epidemiologists and scientists are studying respiratory infections … We need them now.”

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, Dr. Anne Schuchat, then director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases – now deputy editor – was constantly in the media, to the point that inspiration for the character of Kate Winslet in the movie “Contagion”.

In the 2014 Ebola crisis, then CDC director Tom Frieden took control of the public’s attention, led press conferences deliver the last information and has often been the voice of the federal government’s response in media interviews.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (left), and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, leave a complex after accompanying President Donald Trump to a press conference on April 16.

Although the current CDC leader, Dr. Robert Redfield, attends White House briefings, experts say his presence has been less than that of his predecessors. In fact, the public face of the Covid-19 crisis has been ceded to Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and to Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the President’s working group on coronaviruses .

“I greatly respect and admire Dr. Fauci, but he represents the scientific and research line, and Dr. Birx represents the political line at the White House level,” said Dr. Howard Markel, medical historian and of public health. at the University of Michigan. “The CDC represents the public health line, both internationally and in collaboration with state and territorial health agencies, so I would like a representative from this line.”

Trump administration shelved CDC in response to coronavirus, sources say

During the early days of the epidemic in China, the CDC was at the forefront of public messages.

The agency held a conference call with journalists on the new coronavirus on January 17, not even a week after China reported its first death.

“This is a serious situation”, Messonnier warned, director of the CDC National Center for Vaccination and Respiratory Diseases. “It is crucial to be proactive and ready,” he added.

But came Messonnier’s somber warning on February 25. The next day, Trump installed Vice President Mike Pence as head of the White House Coronavirus task force.

Within a few weeks, the teleconference dropped.

“Then it became very risky because it became manifestly hyperpolitical,” said a current CDC staff member.

Earlier this month, CNN reported that the government of Trump suspends redacted directives by the CDC to reopen the country. The agency directives were stricter and more detailed than the White House roadmap itself to return to normal.

“If you look at our policy documents which are online, the recommendations have gone down a lot,” said a current CDC official. “Those who wrote in March say,” Go home and stay there, “and they are very clear. And now they say,” In consultation with state and local governors, do what they say. . “

The official added, “Normally we give advice, and then the states take that advice and turn it into policy.”

A CDC employee said that a general concern is that the agency’s scientific work is being pushed into the background by politics.

“The message we received in previous governments was” you are scientists “, said the employee. “This is not the case this time. If the science we are proposing contradicts a specific political objective, then we are the problem.”

CNN’s Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and CNN’s Collette Richards contributed to this report.

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