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House Dems probe White House over swaying FDA, CDC on virus

John Tozzi
Bloomberg

A House Oversight subcommittee wants two federal health agencies at the fore of the U.S. coronavirus response to disclose information about the White House’s involvement in scientific decisions, according to letters reviewed by Bloomberg News.

The letters addressed to the leaders of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seek documents about agency actions submitted to the White House for review, including communications, comments, first drafts and documents that show changes made during the review process.

The letters sent Monday are signed by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat who is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., questions Postmaster General Louis DeJoy during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the Postal Service on Capitol Hill, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Washington.

The subcommittee’s letters express concern about the influence of non-scientists and political appointees over public-health decisions, including how the FDA will assess experimental coronavirus vaccines now in trials. The letter to the CDC asks about what it calls “White House censorship” of the agency’s guidance.

The inquiries to the CDC and FDA were published later Monday on the committee’s website.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that a coronavirus vaccine will be widely available faster than top government scientists say is likely. The FDA has been expected to issue final guidelines on how vaccines may be cleared for emergency use, a document intended to assuage concerns that a shot might be rushed to market for political reasons.

Trump said last month that the White House might not approve the FDA’s guidelines for vaccine authorization. They haven’t been published as of Monday morning. Krishnamoorthi asked the FDA to publish such guidelines in a previous letter.

Extensive Reviews

Monday’s letters ask about the role of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, known as OIRA, in decisions at the scientific agencies. OIRA, part of the Office of Management and Budget, has legal authority to review federal regulations.

A spokeswoman for the FDA said the agency would respond directly to the subcommittee and referred it to Commissioner Stephen Hahn’s Senate testimony from Sept. 23.

“We have not lost sight of our responsibility to the American people to maintain our regulatory independence and ensure our decisions related to all medical products, including Covid-19 vaccines, are based on science and the available data,” Hahn said in that testimony.

Representatives for the CDC didn’t immediately comment. A spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget, which oversees OIRA, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bloomberg News reported last month that OIRA and other agencies performed extensive reviews of CDC publications related to the coronavirus that delayed guidelines for nursing homes, schools, houses of worship, and businesses, sometimes for weeks.

A new process to review nearly every public document or guideline related to Covid-19 delayed CDC publications in layers of bureaucracy from across the federal government, Bloomberg reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Administration officials defended the process, saying it was within OIRA’s authority, and didn’t diverge from past practice.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force sought to make sure CDC’s communications were “fully reviewed, studied, and vetted by administration officials, including the top medical doctors, for accuracy, effectiveness, and safety to protect the public health – a process the White House stands by that saved lives,” a White House spokesman said at the time.

Interference Concerns

The House subcommittee said in its letters it was concerned that the reviews are holding up timely communication about the coronavirus from federal agencies.

“We are concerned the process lacks clear structure, gives undue weight to the opinions of non-expert political appointees, weakens CDC guidance and delays its publication,” Krishnamoorthi wrote.

The panel is also concerned that the White House is interfering with agency publications “so that they do not provide support for questioning the Administration’s pandemic response or harming President Trump’s reelection prospects,” the letter to the CDC said.

The Oversight subcommittee said OIRA has become less transparent even as it has taken on expanded authority to review agency documents, including nonbinding guidance. The FDA guidelines for authorizing a coronavirus vaccine don’t appear on the list of items under review by OIRA, for example, and the agency has ceased publishing a list of meetings with lobbyists, the letters said.

The subcommittee asked the agencies to respond by Oct. 19.