The editor-in-chief of some of the most respected scientific journals in the world wrote an editorial Thursday condemning the Trump administration, pointing in particular to recent incidents involving the embattled head of the Food and Drug Administration.
H. Holden Thorp, who oversees the family of Science journals published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote that FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn was pressured by the White House to overstate the benefits of convalescent plasma as a treatment for Covid-19. Thorp said it was backlash from the scientific community that “played a role in stiffening [Hahn’s] spine,” after which the FDA commissioner “stood up for science and stood up to Trump.”
It’s the kind of incident, Thorp argued in the journal Science, that shows that “the voice of the scientific community can lead to positive change,” and he argues that though previous editors-in-chief of the Science journals have mostly steered clear of politics, scientists have a responsibility to counter false or misleading claims.
Thorp’s editorial in Science is just the latest in a string of scientific publications taking the unusual step to speak out about the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, published an unprecedented editorial lambasting U.S. politicians for their handling of the outbreak.
Last month, Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden for president, the first time the publication backed a presidential candidate in its 175-year history. And Wednesday, the editors of Nature, another prominent scientific publication, also backed Biden for president saying, “we cannot stand by and let science be undermined.”
Thorp echoed similar sentiments in his editorial.
“Readers who don’t think Science and its publishing peers should write about politics often tell us to ‘stick to science,’” Thorp wrote. “We are sticking to science, but more importantly, we’re sticking up for science.”
Thorp focused on the controversy that surrounded President Donald Trump’s announcement Aug. 23 that the FDA had granted an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma to treat Covid-19. Hahn later apologized for overstating the benefits of convalescent plasma and misrepresenting data related to the treatment’s effect on mortality rates in justifying why the authorization was granted.
After Hahn’s public misstep, Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, wrote an editorial on the medical information website Medscape, where he serves as editor-in-chief, calling for the FDA commissioner to step down.
Thorp wrote that Hahn contacted Topol following the fiasco, and that Topol subsequently shared with Thorp details about the pressure that Hahn had faced from the Trump administration.
“Hahn confirmed to Topol that he had been instructed by the White House to extoll the benefits of convalescent plasma beyond his scientific judgment,” Thorp wrote.
Topol and the FDA did not respond to requests for comment.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the FDA’s decisions under the Trump administration have maintained the agency’s “gold standard for safety and been data-driven to save lives.” Deere added that, “this false narrative that the media and Democrats have created that politics is influencing approvals is not only false but is a danger to the American public.”
“President Trump believes all Americans should have access to proven, safe, and affordable treatment options and the rapid research, development, trials, and scientific approvals are emblematic of President Trump’s highest priority: the health and safety of the American people,” Deere said in the statement.
Hahn publicly apologized for misrepresenting the data, but many public health experts worried that the damage had already been done, and that the blunder could erode public trust in efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
Last week, the FDA announced new guidance for Covid-19 vaccine trials, saying that manufacturers will need to follow tens of thousands of study participants for at least two months to evaluate any potential safety issues. The updated directives effectively rule out that a vaccine candidate could receive emergency use authorization before Election Day on Nov. 3, as Trump has previously claimed.
Thorp commended Hahn for “doing what was right for the success of Covid-19 vaccine trials,” and credited outraged scientists with helping to bring about the change.
“Topol told me that Hahn said he was ‘profoundly dejected’ after the convalescent plasma debacle and realized that the subsequent vaccine drama posed an ‘existential crisis’ — either he would be fired by Trump or permanently lose his standing in the scientific community,” Thorp wrote.
Now, the scientific community will face a similar test as Trump touts experimental antibody treatments as a “cure” for Covid-19, Thorp wrote. Trump received an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail as part of his treatment after he was diagnosed with Covid-19 and hospitalized earlier this month.
“An antibody-based treatment does deserve more scientific attention, but a therapeutic is not a cure,” Thorp wrote. “If an EUA for this treatment is announced, the scientific community needs Hahn to resist Trump’s pressure to exaggerate and declare the pandemic over.”
Since returning to the White House and the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly called the lab-manufactured antibodies a “cure,” despite experts saying there’s no evidence of such. Clinical trials for monoclonal antibodies are ongoing.
Shannon Pettypiece contributed.