Mar 29, 2021 - Health

Redfield accuses Azar of trying to interfere with CDC's COVID report

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a press conference on the coordinated public health response to the 2019 coronavirus (2019-nCoV) on January 28, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Former CDC chief Robert Redfield (L) and former HHS Secretary Alex Azar during a press conference in Washington, D.C., last January. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Two senior members of former President Trump's White House coronavirus task force accused former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a CNN special report, broadcast Sunday, of political interference.

Driving the news: Former CDC chief Robert Redfield told CNN's Sanjay Gupta that what he was "most offended by was the calls" from Azar's office "that wanted me to pressure and change the MMWR [Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on COVID-19]. He may deny that, but it's true."

  • "The one time that was the most egregious was not only was I pressured by the secretary and his office and his lawyers, but as I was driving home, his lawyer and his chief of staff called and pressured me again for at least another hour," Redfield said on CNN's "Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out."
  • "Even to the point of, like, accusing me of failing to make this change that would cost, you know, thousands of lives," he continued.
  • "I finally had a moment in life where I said, you know, enough is enough. You know? If you want to fire me, fire me. I'm not changing the MMWR."

Of note: Former FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn told CNN that when Azar blocked the FDA's ability to regulate lab-developed tests, it "was a line in the sand for me," and he implied that Azar shouted at him over it.

  • When Gupta put it to Hahn that if the secretary was "screaming" at him, that's a problem.
  • "There was definitely that sort of pressure," Hahn replied.
  • "If someone's trying to ask me to do something that I don't think is right and my patient, the American people, need something different," he added, before shrugging.

Why it matters: Critics had long accused the Trump administration of intentionally downplaying the threat of the coronavirus to the American public and interfering with the CDC and other health officials, but this is the first time Redfield and Hahn have given insight into tensions with Azar.

The other side: Azar said in a statement to Axios, “From the beginning of this pandemic, I insisted on giving the public and media access to both critical information and data as soon as we had it, as well as to our scientists."

  • "I have always stood for and defended the scientific independence of the MMWR and other evidence and science-based publications and disclosures from HHS and its agencies, and Dr. Redfield knows this. Any suggestion that I pressured or otherwise asked Dr. Redfield to change the content of a single scientific, peer-reviewed MMWR article is false.”
  • On Hahn, Azar said in a statement that the FDA's illegal assertion of jurisdiction over common lab-developed tests ... slowed the development of U.S. COVID testing."
  • He added that "Hahn's recitation of this call is incorrect" and that "the only intemperate conduct" was Hahn's "threat to resign" — a threat Hahn denies making.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from Azar.

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