ACP Speaks Out Against Attacks on Science During Pandemic

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Opposes efforts to interfere with science, says science should be guiding public policy and medicine

Sept. 11, 2020 (ACP) – As the potential for a coronavirus vaccine comes into focus, the American College of Physicians is standing up for science and responding to ongoing attacks on facts and expertise.

“Science and evidence must drive the public health response to the pandemic,” said Bob Doherty, ACP senior vice president for governmental affairs and public policy. “We've been speaking out when politics has taken a lead over facts, and we'll continue to firmly express the viewpoint of the nation's largest specialty medical society.”

In an Aug. 27 statement signed by Dr. Heather E. Gantzer, chair of the ACP Board of Regents, ACP declared that it “supports the use of science, based on the best available evidence, in the fight against COVID-19. Public health agencies should not be subjected to pressure or be influenced to issue policies that are not based on evidence and expert recommendations of their own scientists.”

ACP pointed to two recent instances at the federal level that highlight the importance of respecting science.

In one case, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released confusing guidelines regarding COVID-19 testing of asymptomatic individuals. The recommendations dumbfounded the medical community, as they suggested that people who don't have symptoms but were exposed to an infected person “do not necessarily need a test.”

The revision “[lacked] transparency and clarity, sending a confusing message to both physicians and the public on appropriate and necessary testing that will ultimately help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” ACP wrote. “We urge [the] CDC, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and other health agencies to transparently convey scientific rationale for their guidance or any changes to their recommendations.”

After a public outcry, the CDC changed its new guidelines to say that those exposed to COVID-19 can indeed be tested, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

ACP also criticized the FDA's recent botched statement regarding the benefits of convalescent plasma, which it said “has resulted in confusion and reputational damage to the FDA's authority and decision-making process.”

As National Public Radio reported, “FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn used a deeply misleading statistic to claim that a treatment the agency had just authorized for treating the coronavirus would save 35 lives out of every 100 people who get the treatment.”

In fact, the statistic quoted by Hahn greatly distorted the actual research findings. He apologized, but some critics remained appalled. Meanwhile, NPR reported, “On top of all this, other critics have questioned the accuracy of the unpublished paper that the FDA relied on in authorizing convalescent serum as a treatment.”

And in early September, Kaiser Health News reported that “dozens of major hospitals across the U.S. are grappling with whether to ignore a federal decision allowing broader emergency use of blood plasma from recovered COVID patients to treat the disease in favor of dedicating their resources to a gold-standard clinical trial that could help settle the science for good.”

To make matters more challenging, public health officials have faced harassment across the nation as they've tried to gain control of the pandemic. “ACP strongly opposes harassment, discrimination, and retaliation of any form of physicians, other medical professionals, scientists and scientific institutions,” said Dr. Jacqueline W. Fincher, president of ACP, in an Aug. 10 statement. “We are especially dismayed about stories that women physicians and experts are being disproportionately targeted, and subject to particularly violent threats.”

The unacceptable federal response to the pandemic raises serious questions as work continues on a possible vaccine, Doherty said. “It's hard to win back credibility once it is damaged,” he said. “If there's even a perception that approval of a COVID-19 vaccine is tainted, you're going to have significant resistance among the public, and ACP's own members will be hesitant to prescribe and recommend it.”

And if a substandard vaccine is produced and fails to meet expectations, he said, “this could increase vaccine hesitancy and add fuel to the fire of the antivax movement.”

Moving forward, “we're going to continue to sound the alarm about attacks on science while serving as a trusted resource for our members, for policymakers and for the public at large,” Doherty said. “ACP will advocate on behalf of members and take a stand for science and the integrity of the scientific process.”

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