Science Policy Under Trump: Vaccine Policy . . . or maybe not.

A chart from the CDC showing the rate of measles infections and how it dropped precipitously upon the introduction of the first measles vaccine. Like all other vaccines, this one saved thousands of lives.

Since the election, while I have paid attention to the developments of the Trump administration, I have withheld on commenting about any of the news so far because nothing has actually happened. On the science front, the most salient decisions related to science policy that Mr. Trump has made so far have been the nomination of former Texas Governor Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy, the nomination of US Representative Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the nomination of the Attorney General of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Secretary positions require confirmation, and I am waiting to hear the confirmation process for Perry and Price before I come to any conclusions about how they might set policy for the nation on these areas of national priority.

However, there is one area that I feel compelled to write about, even though no formal action has been taken and the action reported earlier today is now contradicted by the Trump team itself. That is the announcement today that Mr. Trump has asked a leading ant-vaccine, anti-science advocate, Robert Kennedy Jr., to lead a panel to investigate the safety of vaccines . . . or maybe he hasn’t.

Vaccines save lives everyday, whether it’s the life of the vaccinated or the life of another who cannot or chose not to receive the vaccine but is protected by your immunity stopping the transmission of a virus. Photo from the CDC.

Vaccines save lives every day, and the scientific evidence for this is overwhelming. The main criticisms of vaccination in the last 15 years were spurred by a fake science paper by a single discredited and disgraced medical doctor, Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s paper did tremendous damage, sowing public doubt about the efficacy and safety of vaccines even though his study actually showed no such thing, was based on poor data, and was conducted unethically on children.

Nonetheless, and despite dozens of independent assessments of the many claims related to Wakefield’s study and the debunking of fake news stories about CDC whistleblowers wanting to come out about vaccine safety [1], there is still a falsely based belief out in the public that suggests there is some problem with vaccines. The evidence is clear: vaccines are safe and save lives, even the lives of people who choose not to, or cannot (due to compromised immune systems), receive the vaccine. Your vaccination prevents the spread of disease, saving the lives of the unvaccinated or vulnerable.

So it was troubling to see multiple news agencies [2][3], including Scientific American and the NY Times, report that Mr. Trump has asked Robert Kennedy Jr., science denier and anti-vaccine activist, to chair a panel charged with investigating vaccine safety. Mr. Trump has been vocal about his own ignorance over vaccines and vaccine safety, so perhaps it is no surprise that he is taking this step. As this is the first major science policy move of Mr. Trump, it is worth pointing it out now when the fire he might be about to light is still smoldering.

Mr. Trump has expressed his views on vaccines in the past, and while he’s entitled to his own views it’s important to note that they stand completely opposed to what the scientific method, the most reliable way of establishing information about the natural world ever developed, has determined about vaccines. For instance, here are some examples of Trump statements that, presumably, anticipated his choice to create this panel and potentially tap as its leader a science denialist:

  • “You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks like just it’s meant for a horse and not for a child . . . We had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, 2 years old, a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick. Now is autistic.” — Donald J. Trump, at a Republican Primary Debate in September, 2015.
  • “I’m not against vaccinations for your children, I’m against them in 1 massive dose.Spread them out over a period of time & autism will drop!” — a tweet by Donald J. Trump on Sep. 4, 2014 at 10:10am EST.
  • “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!” — a tweet by Donald J. Trump on Mar. 28, 2014 at 07:35am EST.

There are others like this, but you get the gist. Trump’s position is that vaccines cause autism (false) because too many are given at once (scientifically, no link has ever been found to negative outcomes whether you do one dose or space them out). I’ve posted on these issues before, specifically on this issue, and cited the pile of scientific evidence to show that none of what Trump has raised is actually factual.

But Trump says things that are disposable. His words are like children’s firecrackers – there is smoke and noise and it’s over and gone. One is wise to ignore the stream of nonsense coming out of his mouth (which is often anyway contradictory) and see what he DOES. And what he’s done about these words is invite a science denialist and anti-vaccine activist to chair a panel with the task of assessing vaccine safety. Odd, since vaccine safety for childhood vaccinations has been long-established.

If taxpayer money is being used to support the activities of this panel, the American citizen should already be outraged. At this point, assessing if vaccines is safe is scientifically equivalent to assessing whether or not humans need water. The latter and the former are so well-established with evidence that the premise is a laughable waste of taxpayer money.

And what of Kennedy? One need only look at Kennedy’s own published words on this issue to see where this is headed – not toward science-based policy but toward lies, fear, uncertainty, and doubt about a very settled issue. He wrote a book on the subject in 2014, one containing statements about vaccines debunked long prior to his even penning the book. One can only hope that the remainder of the panel contains enough people who actually understand the issue so that any dangerous nonsense raised by its potential chair can be offset by a grasp of reality and the scientific method.

Or maybe this is all smoke and noise.

It is worth noting that the public backlash about this possible pick by Trump seems to have caused the Trump transition team to recoil a bit from Kennedy. At least, this has been reported tonight in various sources [4] – while Kennedy claims the offer to chair the panel has been made, the Trump team issued a statement contradicting that. So, again, perhaps we have a situation where it’s still not far enough along to say that any action has been taken – and these are all just words in what is turning out to be the Snapchat Presidency – disposable sound bites from the soon-to-be most powerful citizen in American, a man who daily seems to drain the meaning from human verbal and written communication.

[1] As an example, see http://www.snopes.com/politics/medical/cdcimmunity.asp

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/vaccine-critic-kennedy-set-to-chair-trump-panel-on-vaccination-safety/?WT.mc_id=SA_TW_HLTH_NEWS

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/donald-trump-transition.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

[4] https://www.yahoo.com/news/vaccine-skeptic-robert-kennedy-head-trump-commission-203038776.html

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