April 27, 2022
By LUKE ANDREWS, HEALTH REPORTER FOR DAILYMAIL.COM
Federal investigators interviewed top-level directors and managers at agencies
They also opened a hotline for employees to report 'political interference'
Government Accountability Office uncovered widespread allegations of this
They raised fears that Covid guidance may have been 'altered or suppressed'
GAO warned none of the agencies had systems in place for reporting allegations
Said they had failed to train staff in how to report and spot political interference
Follows allegations White House waged a war on science early in the pandemic
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.
Whistleblowers said they did not speak up at the time for fear of retaliation, because they were unsure how to report the issues or believed leaders were already aware.
This is just the latest in a growing patchwork of reports suggesting politicians influenced 'scientific' papers during the pandemic for their own ends.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration's top medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci declared the U.S. is now 'out of the pandemic phase' of Covid, citing low cases and hospitalizations.
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!!!'
In the first year of the pandemic the FDA was also accused of 'grossly misrepresenting' the effectiveness of a blood plasma transfusion for hospitalized Covid patients, in a New York Times article that was also footnoted by the GAO.
Its press release thundered that the treatment was 35 percent effective against death, a figure which Trump branded 'tremendous'.
But scientists were taken aback by the figure, which was not mentioned in the official authorization letter or in the 17-page memo written by its scientist. It was also not in the analysis conducted by the Mayo clinic that was frequently cited.
Recently it has emerged that these transfusions actually provided little benefit to patients infected with Covid, and they are now no longer routinely offered by hospitals.
A state health official also alleged he had been reassigned after refusing to invest federal money in hydroxychloroquine, Stat News reported, which was previously touted by Trump as a possible Covid treatment.
Dr Fauci's comments yesterday were quickly blasted by other health officials, however, with Dr Louise Ivers, a global health expert at Harvard University, retorting 'there is a pandemic'.
The top medical adviser has doubled down on his personal policy of mask wearing and general isolation in spite of his comments yesterday.
He declined an invitation to the prestigious White House Correspondents Association Dinner this Saturday 'because of my individual assessment of my personal risk'.
The GAO report made seven recommendations to the four agencies it investigated for 'political interference'.
These included the agencies setting up a system for reporting potential interference, and training staff to notice and respond to it.
For the report they spoke to two former CDC directors, and four former FDA directors, as well as 17 employees.
The GAO pointed out it had not looked into the allegations to confirm whether political interference had led to changes to the science.
The HHS said in response: 'It is important to differentiate scientifically trained political officials engaging in the legitimate conduct, management, communication and use of science from political officials inappropriately breaching scientific integrity because of political motivations.'
They also 'concurred' with 'the recommendations that [HHS] should ensure that procedures for reporting and addressing potential political interference in scientific decision-making are developed and documented.'
It agreed that employees should be 'trained on how to report allegations of inappropriate political interference in scientific decision-making'.
It follows a report from the GAO in February which branded the HHS — that all four agencies sit under — as 'high risk'.
They warned of a 'lack of leadership and preparedness' in the department for dealing with either Covid or the zika virus outbreak, alongside natural disasters such as hurricanes and wild fires.
The HHS is at risk of financial waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement and other major shortcomings at times when it is required, they said.