A recent viewpoint published in JAMA scrutinized the role that political appointees may be playing in the publication of data in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).1
The piece, written by 3 former editors of MMWR, addressed media reports that suggested that appointees within the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have asked to review and revise scientific reports on COVID-19 published in MMWR.
MMWR, they wrote, has served a critical role in providing up-to-date information on this pandemic and several other health crises in the past, including on Pneumocystis carinii (which led to the identification of AIDS), anthrax exposures in 2001, SARS in 2003, and, more recently, the Zika virus.
“Large disease outbreaks usually generate high levels of public concern, including among elected officials and their staff. Thus, HHS and others in the executive branch frequently have a keen interest in MMWR articles,” they wrote. “To address the administration’s interest at the time of those publications, CDC has shared the topics of
upcoming reports with health officials in HHS; however, the actual reports were not reviewed or shared outside of CDC.”
According to the viewpoint authors, who represent 20 years of collective experience spanning 5 presidential administrations, a strict firewall has been maintained to ensure that MMWR has editorial independence “to guard against political interference.”
“Whether the allegations regarding political appointees delaying or altering MMWR articles are true is unknown. However, even the perception that MMWR reports could be delayed or altered for political purposes is damaging to the reputation of CDC,” the researchers. “These allegations could undermine the confidence of readers in the scientific integrity of MMWR reports that are relied on by large audiences in the US and globally. At a time when the scientific integrity in government health agencies has been questioned, MMWR needs to remain a trusted venue for publication.”
To do this, HHS leadership should affirm its commitment to preserving the integrity of CDC science, the authors wrote, and the MMWR editorial board should work to ensure that the quality and scientific integrity of MMWR is upheld.
Rasmussen SA, Ward JW, Goodman RA, et al. Protecting the editorial independence of the CDC from politics. JAMA. Published online September 22, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.19646