The majority of Americans do not trust the president of the United States for accurate information about coronavirus, and that’s good news for their health and survival. But the public still trusts government scientists, and it’s in everyone’s interest that it stay that way.
The pathogen spreading around the world has been accompanied by a secondary contagion of misleading information, much of which has originated in the White House. And while it’s no doubt dangerous that Trump has used the bully pulpit since January to deny the severity of the pandemic, hype untested treatments, and raise the prospect of ingesting disinfectants, polls suggest there is widespread public skepticism about what he says about COVID-19. The more pernicious threat now is that the president also tries to make reality conform to his delusions. The Trump administration expects career scientists in government to corroborate the president’s wild conjectures and federal agencies to pursue his whims, distracting from worthy COVID-19 research, warping the communication of life-saving facts, and undermining longstanding public trust in federal scientists. The remedy for these attacks on scientific integrity lies with Congress.
Since mid-March, the president has repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as cures for COVID-19, despite the fact that they have not been adequately studied as treatments for the disease and that the Food and Drug Administration has recently warned that hydroxychloroquine could raise the risk of heart failure. One provisional study of Veterans Affairs patients shows that taking the anti-malarial drug is linked to higher death rates from the novel coronavirus. Last month, an Arizona couple decided to ingest a product with chloroquine in it; the man died and his wife was hospitalized. Meanwhile, patients who take hydroxychloroquine on a routine basis for diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are reporting shortages; The New York Times found that prescriptions of the two drugs shot up to 46 times their usual rate after the president began calling them “game-changers.”
Yet the president’s campaign to sell this cure has been more than public conjecture. The White House apparently pressured the FDA to issue an emergency authorization last month to release millions of doses of the drugs for public use for COVID-19. Last week, Trump administration officials removed Dr. Rick Bright, a highly trained immunologist, from his post overseeing the development of treatments and vaccines for the novel coronavirus. Bright contends that he was fired as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority over his refusal to direct billions of taxpayer dollars into hydroxychloroquine when other treatments and vaccines showed greater medical promise. He also says he resisted authorizing widespread use of the drug.
The president has silenced Dr. Anthony Fauci on at least one occasion from answering media inquiries about the drug, and one of Trump’s political appointees reportedly dressed down Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for calling the evidence suggesting that hydroxychloroquine could be a treatment for COVID-19 “anecdotal.” On April 12, the president retweeted a criticism that included “Time to #FireFauci,” a hashtag spurred in part by the scientist’s sworn testimony before Congress about the country’s failures responding to the pandemic.
In last Wednesday’s press briefing, President Trump invited Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to walk back comments he’d made earlier in the week to The Washington Post, when he warned that a second, more severe wave of the virus could be coming this winter. The president, having called the warning fake news, asked Redfield to clarify, and was visibly upset when the scientist affirmed that he had been correctly quoted by the Post.
Then on Thursday the president suggested in his live televised briefing that ingesting disinfectant chemicals such as Lysol or bleach, or exposure to ultraviolet light, might kill coronavirus in a human body. Even if most of the public is unlikely to heed Trump’s bad medical advice, it doesn’t mean that the fallout is harmless. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, put on the spot during Thursday’s press briefing, hesitated to openly contradict the president. Rather than forcefully rejecting the dangerous premise of his remarks, she walked a delicate line between contradicting and correcting Trump, lest she be removed from her post and unable to help the nation address the unfolding disaster.
If the president were simply incorrect in his pseudoscientific proclamations, he’d still be putting lives at risk. What’s yet more dangerous, however, is that he threatens those whose job it is to impart facts to the public whenever those facts highlight that he is wrong. It’s clear the president expects government scientists to downplay the dangers of the virus and of “the cures” he espouses to fit his careless narrative of the crisis; they are welcome to speak as long as they don’t contradict him.
“As brilliant and good a scientist as Tony Fauci is, he should not be spending time maneuvering around the president. It’s a cost to society,” John Holdren, former White House science advisor under President Obama and a nongovernmental science advisor to President Clinton, told the Globe editorial board. Holdren, who has known and worked with Fauci over the course of decades, said the latter is one of the country’s leading virologists and should be ideally spending more time on vaccine development than on daily efforts to diplomatically correct the president. “It’s a shame,” he said.
The public depends on government scientists to tell us what’s true, whether it’s a weather forecast of a coming storm, the threat of a contagious disease, or the risk of sea-level rise in our communities. It is a matter of public safety — of life and death — that these scientists be able to speak freely and not fear political retribution for sharing their research findings or their expert judgment.
“It’s important to remember that these scientists in government work for us,” said Ken Kimmel, the president of the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, in an interview with the Globe editorial board. “We’re paying for their work; we’re entitled to see it.” The Trump White House has silenced, threatened, and reassigned government scientists since long before the current crisis began, Kimmel added, and is driving away a generation of talented scientists who might have committed their careers to public service.
Fauci and Bright are not presidential appointees — and thus they are ostensibly insulated from political reprisal by rules voluntarily adopted by federal agencies. But when the executive branch fails to actually protect the independence of career government scientists, it’s left to Congress to air the problem. That means holding hearings to formally document the egregious attacks on scientific integrity by this White House. Despite the logistical challenges of holding public hearings when social distancing is required, House leaders should sanction and create virtual methods for committees to call forth administration officials and hold them publicly accountable for efforts to silence scientists, manipulate their work, and remove them from their posts during the pandemic.
In the long run, when saner minds rule the Senate, Congress ought to pursue legislation to better protect career government scientists from political interference. One bill, the Scientific Integrity Act, passed by the House Science Committee with bipartisan support in fall 2019, would make it illegal to manipulate, suppress, or distort government research and prevent politically motivated delays in the release of research findings. It would not, however, explicitly protect the right of government scientists to speak to the press about their research or give them legal redress when they are unduly removed from their posts — provisions that ought to be included in any final legislation.
Bleach is not the cure for what ails America any more than snake oil is. And the disinfectant of sunlight is needed not for coronavirus in living humans but for the Trump administration’s manipulation of science and its attack on government scientists. It’s a pity that Congress can’t simply scrub away the conjecture that the president parades as fact, but it can — and must — do more to protect the ability of scientists to keep pursuing and speaking the truth.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.