Doctor Helping Mass. COVID Response Says 'Blatant Interference' by HHS Officials in CDC Guidelines Is 'Unforgivable'

A doctor helping lead Massachusetts' response to the coronavirus pandemic said that "blatant interference" by the Trump administration into U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on the outbreak is "unforgivable."

Dr. Abraar Karan, a Harvard Medical School physician, responded to Thursday's New York Times report that said some of the CDC guidance issued this summer was not written by CDC scientists and was posted to the agency's website "despite their serious objections."

"Bringing it back to this again this morning—blatant interference of senior HHS officials in the CDC guidelines is one of the most alarming things to have happened during this pandemic," Karan tweeted. "Guidelines that could lead to less testing, and more transmission of #covid19 is unforgivable."

Karan's Twitter post included a clip from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, in which the host blasted the Trump administration for its alleged actions. The CDC has become the "international gold standard for public health guidance"—a standard that has been "successfully stolen" by the White House, Maddow said.

"The Trump administration has moved to steal that authority and put out their own junk under the CDC's name, because they know that when we, the American people, and people around the world see the CDC's name on it, it will mean something to us and we will follow it," she said.

One of the more controversial guidelines in question was published on the CDC's website on August 24. It said that people without COVID-19 symptoms "do not necessarily need a test," even if they have been in close contact with an infected person for more than 15 minutes, according to the Times.

The guideline came from officials with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the CDC's parent organization, and skipped the CDC's scientific review process, the Times discovered after speaking with several people familiar with the matter and obtaining internal documents.

"That was a doc that came from the top down, from the HHS and the task force," a federal official with knowledge of the matter told the Times, referring to the White House's coronavirus task force. "That policy does not reflect what many people at the CDC feel should be the policy."

The testing guideline received pushback from many public health experts. A senior CDC scientist told the Times that the published document contains "elementary errors" and recommendations inconsistent with the CDC's stance—making it apparent to many CDC employees that agency scientists were not the ones who wrote it.

In tweeting his reaction to the Times report, Karan also wrote that his "heart was racing" when he first read the story and that he "didn't want to believe it was true."

"This crossed all the lines for me, particularly bc it was a substantial edit and shift in guidance that was noticeable, to the point where many folks in medicine/public health were left scratching our own heads, wondering if the CDC knew something we didn't," Karan wrote. He added that the story "fits the bill" after having spoken with "a number of people, including frustrated colleagues at the CDC."

Admiral Brett Giroir, the Trump administration's coronavirus testing coordinator and the HHS's assistant secretary for health, told the Times that the original draft came from the CDC but he "coordinated editing and input from the scientific and medical members of the task force."

The draft went through about 20 versions over a month and included comments from CDC Director Robert Redfield; two members of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx; and Dr. Scott Atlas, President Donald Trump's adviser on the coronavirus outbreak, Giroir told the Times.

The members even presented the document to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the task force, Giroir said. He told the Times he did not know why the testing recommendation circumvented the usual CDC scientific review. "I think you have to ask Dr. Redfield about that. That certainly was not any direction from me whatsoever," he said.

The CDC sent an emailed statement from Redfield to the Times on Thursday night, which said, "The guidelines, coordinated in conjunction with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, received appropriate attention, consultation and input from task force experts."

An HHS spokesperson sent Newsweek the following statement: "As always, guidelines receive appropriate attention, consultation and input from the medical and scientific experts on the task force. This was the case then and will continue to be the case in the future."

A new version of the testing recommendation was posted Friday to the CDC's website and marked a reversal from its previous guidance. The recommendation now instructs asymptomatic people who've had close contact with an infected person that they need a test.

Robert Redfield 9/16
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield speaks at a September 16 hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee reviewing coronavirus response efforts. Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty

In addition to the testing recommendation, the HHS uploaded a document to the CDC's website in July that argued for "the importance of reopening schools." It offers a stark contrast to the CDC's typically neutral and scientific tone, federal officials told the Times.

"The idea that someone at HHS would write guidelines and have it posted under the CDC banner is absolutely chilling," Dr. Richard Besser, who served as acting director at the CDC in 2009, told the Times.

During her show Thursday night, Maddow continued with her criticism of the Trump administration, claiming that its actions have ruined the respected health agency's reputation.

"Now, if it's got the CDC's name on it, you can apparently no longer count on that to be CDC-quality science, because sometimes it's just non-scientific junk shoveled straight from the White House for political reasons," she said.

In his Twitter thread, Karan emphasized the importance of trusting the science and testing. "'Test, trace, isolate' cannot happen if you don't test," he wrote.

"What does happen when you test is that you find cases, you isolate them, & you prevent viral spread," Karan tweeted. "But when your President thinks testing more is a bad thing—probably because it sheds light on his administration's failure to control the epidemic—then we have a big problem."

Updated 9/18/20, 3:30 PM ET: This story has been updated to include a comment from the HHS. It has also been updated to reflect the CDC's new testing guidelines, which were clarified Friday afternoon after this article's publication.

Updated 9/19/20, 2:13 PM ET: This story's headline has been updated to clarify that Dr. Abraar Karan is helping to lead Massachusetts' COVID-19 response. An earlier version stated that he is leading it.

Doctor Helping Mass. COVID Response Says 'Blatant Interference' by HHS Officials in CDC Guidelines Is 'Unforgivable' | News