In recent weeks it has come to light that the White House blocked an effort by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to require the use of face masks on public and commercial transportation and initiated, against the wishes of CDC scientists, a March 2020 CDC order to close the U.S. border to asylum seekers – both moves widely and publicly condemned by public health experts. These are just the latest revelations that demonstrate how the administration has hobbled the CDC’s work during the COVID-19 crisis and diminished its scientific standing. On issues related to COVID-19, reports document that the White House has edited CDC publications and altered advisories on testing contacts, on school opening strategies, and on the danger of singing in churches.
The danger of allowing political motives to sculpt the CDC’s messages during a pandemic risks something far larger than “just” adding a few million cases and an extra couple hundred thousand deaths from COVID-19. Unlike the EPA or FDA, which wield regulatory power, the CDC achieves its goals mostly by directly communicating evidence and advice to the public and health professionals. Over 1,000 past and present CDC researchers signed an open letter condemning the politicization of CDC. Today, young people cannot remember when the CDC released evidence on the dangers of guns in the home or the relative safety for women of a legal abortion over full-term births without vicious condemnation from Washington DC.
In 1999, I had the epidemiological success of a lifetime while working for an NGO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) at the peak of their war that involved five neighboring armies. In a rural district, we documented that around 1,600 children had died of measles in the previous few weeks. Immediately, UNICEF pledged to get the vaccine needed, and my NGO and the Ministry of health prepared to vaccinate the population. After 3 weeks of preparation, UNICEF announced that they had searched across the entire African continent and there was no measles vaccine available.
Five years earlier, I had finished the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Services fellowship or EIS. The two-year fellowship, started in 1951, was designed to create a close-nit cadre of public health professionals and spread them across the centers and branches with the various areas of expertise that constitute the CDC. Somehow, 60 trainees at a time managed to build the CDC into a tight-knit, expert community. While there, I had met “the” CDC expert on measles control, Stan. I called his office with a satellite phone and, miraculously, he answered. I explained the situation and pleaded, “Stan, I desperately need 60,000 doses of measles vaccine!” He asked me to call him back in four hours. When I did, and he gleefully said, “Les, I found you 60,000 doses, and the syringes and vitamin A tablets to go with it.” I was astonished and asked where the vaccine was? It was ready for us to pick up