The claim: The U.S. government’s vaccine safety office was closed.
The deadly spread of COVID-19 has triggered a blame game on social media amid the election season.
On Oct. 25, the group Occupy Democrats claimed on Facebook that the Trump administration in 2019 “quietly closed a vaccine safety office, hindering efforts to trace the long-term safety of a COVID vaccine. This is a shocking disregard for the health and wellbeing of Americans. If at this stage, you still think Trump cares about you, you’re not smart enough to vote.”
More: Fact check: Neither Biden nor Trump is calling for mandated COVID-19 vaccines
Origin of the vaccine office claim
The claim stems from reorganization within the Department of Health and Human Services that affected the National Vaccine Program Office.
In March 2019, less than a year before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., HHS Secretary Alex Azar spelled out the changes in a letter to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is ranking member on the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Service, and Education.
As part of a broader reorganization of the department, Azar said, the National Vaccine Program Office was shut down as a separate entity in an effort to “improve the integrity and quality” of programs within the office of the Assistant Secretary for Health “and increase operational efficiencies by eliminating program redundancies and decreasing program costs.”
He said the National Vaccine Program Office would be merged with the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy (OHAIDP) to form the Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP).
“This effort will provide cross-cutting, science-based, health-promoting advice and recommendations to the ASH on issues pertaining to blood and tissue safety and availability; HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis and other infectious diseases; and vaccines and immunization.”
More: Fact check: Trump’s past flu vaccinations not linked to increased COVID-19 risk
He said the changes were proposed by a ” working group of career staff” and would allow for the “more efficient management” of multiple committees currently managed separately by vaccine and HIV/AIDS offices.
In effect, the vaccine office was merged into one focused on infectious diseases.
The effect of the restructuring
The New York Times, quoting experts, said the elimination of the office left the long-term safety effort for coronavirus vaccines fragmented among federal agencies, with no central leadership.
While the office was ostensibly folded into another, it no longer really functions as it did before, said Daniel Salmon. He was director of vaccine safety at National Vaccine Program Office from 2007-12. He now directs the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
In part, people with the necessary training and background are no longer on staff.
“When you remove all the technical experience, you don’t have the capacity to make decisions. You can be a smart person and a good scientist, but you can’t oversee a vaccine safety program if you don’t have specific training in pharmacoepidemiology and vaccine safety,” said Salmon.
HHS spokeswoman Natalie Baldassarre denied that the vaccine office was shut down.
“The office was not ‘closed,’ but was merged with the Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy and was strengthened,” she said in a statement to USA TODAY. “All the functions continue in this new organizational structure. Additionally, the National Vaccine Advisory Committee is actively meeting, involved, and heavily engaged in COVID-19 vaccine efforts — including on the important topic of safety.”
HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir said in a statement provided to USA TODAY that the realignment “was the best way to improve the function of both offices by creating synergies and eliminating stovepipes.”
“I wholeheartedly concurred with this recommendation because strengthening vaccine effectiveness and confidence and ending the HIV epidemic are two of my most critical priorities,” he said. “Anyone who is suggesting that we closed this office has no clue what they’re talking about.”
Baldassarre said HHS and Defense Department personnel detailed to Operation Warp Speed, the public-private organization formed to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, “are working closely with the CDC to synchronize the IT systems involved in pharmacovigilance.”
Dr. Nicole Lurie, who was assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS during the 2009 pandemic, told the Times that the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the impact of the loss of the vaccine safety office. “The coordinated leadership for stuff like this would likely come from the National Vaccine Program Office,” she said.
Lurie, now an adviser at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, told the Times that researchers have waited for months for coordinated leadership from the federal government on long-term vaccine safety. “There are a whole bunch of people who were really concerned about this,” she said.
“There’s no sort of active coordination to bring all the information together,” she told the Times.
Our ruling: True
The National Vaccine Program Office as it was originally formed as a standalone office was closed, and was merged with a an HIV/AIDS office. We rate this claim as TRUE, based on our research.
Our fact-check sources:
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: HHS shut down vaccine office, merged it with HIV/AIDS office