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House Democrats Subpoena HHS and CDC Chiefs Over Alleged Political Interference in Covid-19 Response

"The subpoenas were necessary because... efforts to interfere with scientific work at CDC were far more extensive and dangerous than previously known," asserted Rep. James Clyburn.

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar (R) speaks at a January 28, 2020 news conference on the emerging Covid-19 crisis as CDC Director Robert Redfield stands by. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks at the podium while Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield stands by during a January 28, 2020 Washington, D.C. press conference on the emerging coronavirus crisis. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images) 

Accusing top Trump health officials of "extensive and dangerous" political interference in the coronavirus pandemic response, House Democrats on Monday subpoenaed the heads of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to compel them to produce documents concerning the alleged meddling.

"Over a period of four months, as coronavirus cases and deaths rose around the country, Trump administration appointees attempted to alter or block at least 13 scientific reports related to the virus."
—Rep. James Clyburn

Axios reports the subpoenas from the House Select Subcomittee on the Coronavirus Crisis were issued to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Robert Redfield. Democrats are accusing HHS and CDC officials of altering more than a dozen scientific reports over a four-month period earlier this year, as well as of postponing publication of peer-reviewed articles on the virus. 

"The subpoenas were necessary because the select subcommittee's investigation has revealed that efforts to interfere with scientific work at CDC were far more extensive and dangerous than previously known," Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the subcommittee chairman, wrote in a letter (pdf) explaining the action. "HHS has made clear that it will not provide a timely and complete response to the... subcommittee's requests on a voluntary basis."

The letter alleges that "over a period of four months, as coronavirus cases and deaths rose around the country, Trump administration appointees attempted to alter or block at least 13 scientific reports related to the virus." 

Furthermore, it states that "documents show that HHS officials also attempted to muzzle CDC scientists by retaliating against career employees who provided truthful information to the public and targeting CDC staff with what one employee described as a 'pattern of hostile and threatening behavior.'"

The letter continues:

These unprecedented efforts to influence CDC's reports and bully its staff occurred at the same time HHS officials were privately advocating for a 'herd immunity' strategy to spread the coronavirus widely among Americans, as the select subcommittee revealed in a December 16, 2020 staff memorandum. The select subcommittee needs to obtain all the documents sought... to understand who in the Trump administration was responsible for this political pressure campaign, whether it was intended to cripple the nation's coronavirus response in a misguided effort to achieve herd immunity, and what steps must be taken to end this outrageous conduct and protect American lives.

Paul Alexander, a Trump appointee at HHS and formerly a science adviser to HHS assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo, is a leading proponent of the herd immunity strategy. On July 4 he sent an email to colleagues asserting that "kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle-aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk... so we use them to develop herd [immunity]… We want them infected."

"Kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle-aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk... so we use them to develop herd [immunity]… We want them infected."
—Paul Alexander, former HHS official 

Dr. Charlotte Kent, who is responsible for the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, testified before subcommittee staff earlier this month that she was instructed to delete an August 8 email (pdf) sent by Alexander regarding Covid-19 risk in young people. 

Kent said the email concerned an effort to interfere in a CDC report detailing Covid-19 youth risks during the period when President Donald Trump was pressuring school districts across the nation to reopen.

"I was instructed to delete the email," Kent testified. She also said she was told the order to destroy the evidence came from Redfield. 

Both Alexander and Caputo have left their positions amid the controversy.  

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