Biden CDC Head Says Science Will Be Heard Again On Her Watch

Walensky_Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Over the past 12 months, the scientific community has felt itself under attack from politicians who relied on anecdotal evidence in the treatment of a pandemic, as well as politicians who did not like the fact that hard scientific data contradicted political messaging. But, that stops with the new administration.

Rochelle Walensky, who most recently served as chief of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, will become the new head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the administration of Joe Biden. Walensky said one of her first priorities in her new role will be to make sure science will be “heard again.” In a 30 minute interview with JAMA, Walensky pointed to the restraints placed on career scientists during the administration of Donald Trump, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Walensky noted there are multiple challenges facing the CDC. She said it is important those dedicated researchers who work for the safety of the American public know they are respected.

“They have been diminished, I think they have been muzzled. This top-tier agency, world-renowned, hasn’t really been appreciated over the past four years, and really, markedly, over the past year,” Walensky said. “Science hasn’t been heard, I have to fix that.”

Although the value of scientific thought was challenged and diminished in the wake of political messaging, Walensky said most of the talent at the CDC has remained in place due to their dedication.

“What I need to do is make sure those voices need to be heard again,” she added.

Scientific news, whether it’s good or bad, must be shared with the public. Walensky said communication, both internal and external, will be the key. She noted it will be important to share the scientific message in laymen’s terms, so people will understand what is being told to them.

Walensky takes over the reins of the CDC one-year after the first COVID-19 case was reported in the United States and one day after the nation recorded its 400,000th death from the virus. Battling the ongoing pandemic will remain a critical focus for the CDC. To combat the pandemic, Walensky said it will be important to showcase the efficacy and importance of vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will also have a new face in charge, at least on an interim basis. Career FDA scientist Janet Woodcock will temporarily assume the role of Commissioner until the Biden administration appoints a more permanent head. As a veteran of the FDA, Woodcock will provide a steady hand on the regulatory agency and, much like Walensky noted, ensure that science is not impacted by political pressure.

In an interview with Politico, outgoing FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn discussed the pressure the Trump White House placed on the regulatory agency to approve treatments for COVID-19. Hahn’s tenure as FDA Commissioner has been defined by that political pressure. In August, Hahn was forced to walk back efficacy statements made about convalescent plasma for COVID-19 during a White House briefing. More recently, Hahn was reportedly threatened with termination by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows if the FDA didn’t authorize the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine following overwhelming support of the product from the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.

During his term as president, Trump was highly critical of the FDA, and that criticism only ramped up when the pandemic struck. Over the past 10 months Trump has urged the FDA to authorize the use of multiple therapeutics against COVID-19, including antibody treatments and the EUA for convalescent plasma. He also expressed anger the FDA would not accelerate potential authorization of a vaccine ahead of the Nov. 3 election. When the FDA authored a more stringent guidance for Emergency Use Authorization of a vaccine due to political pressure, Trump called the new guidance a “political move.”

For Secretary of Health and Human Services, Biden announced California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his nomination. Outgoing HHS Secretary Alex Azar called his tenure in that role “the honor of a lifetime.”

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