CDC & NIH to the American People: You Can’t Handle the Truth!

CDC & NIH to the American People: You Can’t Handle the Truth!

  • March 31, 2022

Public health agencies face increased pressure over multiple potential scientific integrity violations

Today, watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced additional activity involving alleged scientific integrity violations by federal health agencies. PPT filed a complaint with the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against HHS’s National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Recent media reports indicate that some officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have apparently adopted as policy the shocking pronouncement of Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup from “A Few Good Men:” “You can’t handle the truth!” In the context of the CDC, however, withholding health information from the American public in the belief they “can’t handle the truth” would constitute a violation of the Center’s scientific integrity policy as well as President Biden’s Presidential Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. Both documents stress the importance of insulating scientific findings from political and policy considerations.

The CDC’s scientific integrity policy declares, “CDC has a responsibility to conduct the best science and is committed to disseminating scientific findings and results without being influenced by policy or political issues.” Yet recent reporting reveals the CDC is not publishing large portions of the data that it collects related to Covid-19, with a spokesperson disclosing that one reason for withholding this from the American public “is fear that the information might be misinterpreted.” PPT submitted a complaint to the Inspector General (IG) at HHS requesting an investigation into at least one instance, but possibly several others, in which the CDC may have violated its own scientific integrity policy.

This is far from the first instance in which scientific integrity at these agencies has taken a backseat to policy objectives, giving rise to allegations of inappropriate political influence and meddling. According to another recent report, career staff at the CDC described “uncommon” coordination between the CDC and teachers unions in drafting school reopening guidance. The report indicates “that the CDC does not typically share draft guidance outside the agency.” In another instance, prominent health professionals have expressed the belief that federal officials were “acting ahead of the science” with respect to recommending a fourth dose of vaccine for certain populations.

Last year, PPT submitted an IG complaint regarding another potential scientific integrity policy violation related to promotion of the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine push. PPT asserted that public statements by high-level staff within HHS, including from NIH, as well as public documents by the CDC misrepresented the results of a study regarding the effectiveness of natural immunity to Covid-19 acquired via a previous infection. The watchdog filed a FOIA request to NIH in conjunction with the complaint seeking records regarding the study and the public pronouncements involving it. In keeping with the apparent adoption of Col. Jessup’s declaration as policy, NIH has, in PPT’s assessment, failed to live up to its statutory obligations regarding this FOIA and PPT has filed a lawsuit.

“Trust is, without question, the most precious commodity for public health officials, especially at the time of a world-wide health crisis,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “Yet, trust in our most powerful and prominent health agencies has been on a steep decline, much of it owing to their own actions and statements, including the apparent adoption of the Colonel Jessup approach to disclosure. These agencies have a long way to go to restore that trust, but a good beginning would be prompt and thorough investigation into our complaints and a renewed commitment to scientific integrity.”