The Government’s Response to the Virus Is Sabotage, Not Incompetence

The corruption of these storied health organizations is the biggest scandal of the pandemic

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

It’s hard to know when my faith in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) died. Was it in February when the CDC botched the development of its test for the novel coronavirus while the FDA refused to approve more effective ones developed by university labs? Maybe it was when the FDA granted an Emergency Use Authorization for hydroxychloroquine (since revoked) in the face of weak evidence and strong political pressure. Or perhaps it was the announcement this summer that the CDC had been stripped of its responsibility of processing coronavirus data, now outsourced to a questionable private company.

All I know is that I’ve felt this despair — that Americans are alone in the fight against this pandemic, a ship in a hurricane without a captain or crew — for a while. I never believed that the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence — the man responsible for the worst HIV outbreak in Indiana’s history because of his refusal to accept a public health harm prevention tactic — was going to accomplish anything. But I held out hope that there were enough career scientists and physicians in the storied federal health agencies whose moral compass would be sufficient to navigate us out of the storm. I have no doubt that many of these people are still working day and night to try and fix the U.S.’s broken response to the virus, but their leaders have failed them and us.

This week brought a one-two punch of disbelief, rage, and disgust as first the FDA and then the CDC buckled to political pressure. On Sunday, the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization for convalescent plasma despite the urge for caution from Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, the heads of the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, respectively. Convalescent plasma — infusing the antibody-rich blood of recovered patients into newly infected ones — has been around for over a hundred years, and while we know the treatment is safe, its efficacy in the context of the novel coronavirus is unknown. The therapy has now been given to tens of thousands of people as part of a loosely organized clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic, but no one thought to run a control arm to verify that the treatment actually works. As a result, the data in support of the therapy is extremely weak. But that didn’t stop Stephen Hahn, the head of the FDA, from standing next to Donald Trump at a press conference and parroting the president’s lie that convalescent plasma could save 35 out of 100 people — a talking point that Hahn has since walked back.

Perhaps the worst part of this situation is that it sets a potentially dangerous precedent for the approval of a vaccine, which many are now predicting will come in October ahead of the presidential election, whether it’s ready or not. There’s already understandable concern that vaccine research has been rushed to the detriment of safety and quality checks; the name Operation Warp Speed does not exactly imbue confidence in a careful, thorough, meticulous process. Approval by the FDA of a questionably efficacious treatment in the face of dissent from two of the nation’s top doctors does not help matters.

The very next day, the director of the CDC, Robert Redfield, appeared to cave to Trump’s ludicrous claim that more tests lead to more cases, and the agency quietly updated its website to no longer recommend that people who come into contact with an infected person get tested for the virus. It should go without saying, but just because you don’t test for a disease doesn’t mean it’s not there. This same week, a new paper came out that estimated 69% of infections are caused by people who are asymptomatic — none of whom would be caught under the CDC’s new guidelines. If people without symptoms are not tested, particularly those we know have potentially been infected, the pandemic will never end. Advocating for less testing instead of more is quite possibly the worst stance the agency could have taken short of calling the virus a hoax.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I will get the vaccine when one is rolled out because I think the stakes are too high for the FDA to approve anything that isn’t airtight. I trust the scientific method, and I believe that the scientists and doctors at these institutions care about their work and protecting the public. But I no longer trust the men leading these organizations, who appear to have been corrupted by an administration that either does not believe in science, does not care about the American people, or both. This is no longer negligence. This is not incompetence. This is sabotage.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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