None of the 10 doctors on the committee that advises the Centers for Disease Control on COVID-19 vaccines would say if they support the CDC removing a world-leading scientist from that committee for opposing a pause that may have spooked Americans off COVID vaccination.
The Federalist contacted all of the committee’s members for comment on the CDC’s decision that could affect the integrity and public perception of the committee’s work, as well as Americans’ willingness to accept COVID vaccines, a current pressing concern for the public health agency. None was willing to comment.
The reluctance underscores the retaliatory climate CDC communicated when it punished a “world-class” scientist who helped invent methods dramatically improving the very vaccine safety system the CDC uses today. That story The Federalist broke received major media attention, and so has the vaccine hesitancy the agency’s pause seems to have amplified.
In April, CDC official Dr. Amanda Cohn emailed Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Martin Kulldorff to remove him from the CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccines Safety Technical Work Group (known as VaST). In her email, she made it clear that the agency was retaliating against Kulldorff because he publicly expressed his professional opinion that pausing the Johnson and Johnson COVID vaccine wasn’t scientifically warranted and would increase COVID deaths.
A Harvard Medical School colleague described Kulldorff as one of the top three vaccine safety experts in the world, saying Kulldorff’s expertise to say what he did is not in question to anyone in his field of vaccine safety. Kulldorff is one of the three coauthors of the Great Barrington Declaration published in October 2020 that argues lockdowns are the wrong approach to the COVID-19 threat. That declaration has been signed by more than three times as many medical and public health scientists than an opposing statement released a week later, the John Snow Memorandum, and by approximately 10 times as many medical practitioners.
Just before he was removed from the CDC committee, Kulldorff published an op-ed disagreeing with the CDC’s decision to pause the Johnson and Johnson COVID vaccine. As a member of the committee, he told The Federalist, he also made that recommendation before the pause.
As he explained in The Hill op-ed the CDC punished him for, Kulldorff instead recommended the vaccine continue to be given to older people, who have shown none of the blood-clotting effects that led to the pause and are at much greater risk if they contract COVID without immune protection. He said younger people should be encouraged to get other COVID vaccines that haven’t resulted in the incredibly rare blood-clotting for their demographic.
A few days after Kulldorff was punished for publicly offering this professional opinion, the CDC adopted his position. In a press conference explaining why, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky even used Kulldorff’s reasoning, saying that keeping the vaccine off the market would cost more lives than it might save. So the CDC punished Kulldorff for an opinion it quickly switched to advocating. But not after damaging public trust in COVID vaccines with the pause he urged against.
The agency has to date not explained its decision, reinstated Kulldorff, apologized, or anything else besides clamming up about the incident. Cohn was among those at the CDC who refused to comment to The Federalist. CDC spokespeople also ignored repeated requests for comment.
This climate of secrecy, retaliation, and intimidation is not a good look for a supposedly apolitical and supposedly health-focused agency Americans have seen constantly alter its public messaging for political, not medical, reasons.
Surveys show public perception that the CDC is willing to put politics over science affects Americans’ willingness to get a COVID vaccine. Indeed, the very “pause” Kulldorff advised against was followed by a drastic dropoff in vaccination levels, as John Podhoretz noted May 5:
On April 15, 3.5 million ‘first doses’ were administered. Then came the J&J ‘pause.’ Only twice since have daily first shots climbed above 3 million, and by the end of April — after the pause was lifted — they sunk to around 2 million a day.
The May numbers are simply calamitous; demand for the vaccines has fallen off a cliff. The seven-day average at the end of this week will be considerably below 1 million.
Multiple surveys have shown public trust in the CDC declining significantly in the past year due to increased belief that politics influences the agency’s actions. A RAND Corporation survey found a 10-point decline in public trust in the CDC from May to October 2020. “[V]iews of the CDC are now strongly politicized,” says a RAND press release accompanying the results, which were just published on April 5, 2021.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll out in September 2020 found a 16-point drop in public trust in the CDC from April to September 2020, amid rising perceptions of the agency’s politicization. In that poll, 42 percent of respondents said the CDC was paying “too much attention” to politics in its coronavirus response. More recent Kaiser polls find COVID vaccine hesitancy is correlated with perceptions the CDC is a politicized agency.
An April 2021 Economist/YouGov poll found that just 57 percent of Americans trust medical advice from the CDC “a lot” (29 percent) or “somewhat” (28 percent). In that poll, 79 percent of those who plan not to get a COVID vaccine don’t trust the CDC for medical information. In all of these polls, those who identify as Democrats or liberals place high levels of trust in the CDC, while those who identify as Republicans or conservatives have low trust in the CDC.
It’s not just conservatives thinking the CDC’s constant self-contradiction, dating back to the very beginning of the pandemic when officials repeatedly insisted masks were not needed or helpful, is devastating public trust in scientific institutions at a crucial moment. It’s also doctors and scientists thinking this, including many on the political left.
CDC messaging on restrictions post vax has been a mess
The q is not: is there 0% change of spread after vax (ans: almost surely no)
The Q is: do precautions have a reasonable ARR (w/ real compliance) post vac? (ans, also almost surely no) pic.twitter.com/jVStXV15nq
— Vinay Prasad MD MPH (@VPrasadMDMPH) April 2, 2021
Boosting this suspicion are recent revelations the CDC allowed teachers unions to influence and even write regulations the CDC issued in February about school reopenings. That would explain why the CDC’s recommendations have been out of step with the rest of advanced nations’ willingness to open schools and childcare facilities as early as an entire year ago, while U.S. public schools influenced by a politicized CDC still mostly remain closed to full-time in-person instruction. The negative ripple effects of this politically motivated stance will last for generations.
This dynamic will also likely retard scientific advancement by chilling scientists’ speech and free exploration of socially important questions in their work. University of Wisconsin at Madison life sciences communication professor Dietram “Scheufele worries that if people start viewing researchers and their institutions as agents of the Democratic Party, science’s bipartisan support could crumble,” he told Chemical and Engineering News for a January article.