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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s health protection agency, has had unbridled authority in the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the helm of this organization is Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who took on the directorship in January 2021. A recent congressional hearing involving Dr. Walensky has stirred up a storm of controversy and brought to the fore alarming concerns about the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.
Scrutinizing the Congressional Hearing
Representatives Brad Wenstrup, Jim Jordan, and Marjorie Taylor Greene led the interrogation during the hearing. Dr. Walensky found herself defending various statements made by both her and the Biden administration regarding the efficacy of the vaccines. Rep. Wenstrup’s remarks harked back to March 29, 2021, when Dr. Walensky confidently declared, “Our data from the CDC today suggests … that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick,” a statement that was walked back by a CDC spokesperson merely three days later, adding to the confusion and fueling skepticism.
Wenstrup did not stop at this glaring discrepancy. He also referred to President Biden’s remarks on July 21, 2021, where the President assured that, “If you are vaccinated, you are not going to be hospitalized, you are not going to be in the intensive care unit, and you are not going to die.”
It is now incontrovertible that the COVID shots never prevented infection or transmission.Nevertheless, that claim was used to pressure Americans into receiving the experimental injection, often under threat of losing their jobs. On September 9th, 2021, President Biden addressed the nation, saying, “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us.”
Wenstrup threw a gauntlet at Dr. Walensky’s feet, raising questions about the integrity of these public declarations. He demanded to know if the data the CDC had at the time truly supported these statements or if they were, instead, propagated for political mileage.
VAERS and AFT
While defending her past assertions, Dr. Walensky stood in the line of fire from Rep. Jim Jordan. She maintained, “In March of 2021, the vast majority of data demonstrated that the vast majority of people were not getting infected if they were vaccinated.” But Rep. Jordan was not appeased, pressing her on the wording of her statement. He insisted, “You didn’t say the vast majority of people. You said vaccinated people do not carry the virus.” Prodded for an answer on the veracity of her past remarks, Walensky simply responded, “It was generally accurate.” This statement fell flat, sparking further doubts about the transparency of CDC’s communication on vaccine effectiveness.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene switched gears and focused on the topic of vaccine safety, leading to a discussion on the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). As Greene brought to light, VAERS is designed to record any adverse events post-vaccination.
VAERS has been found to record only 1% of actual vaccine adverse events.
Dr. Walensky, acknowledging this fact, emphasized the CDC’s rigorous review process for these reports. However, Greene rebutted, expressing her concerns about the transparency of this process, asking for more accountability towards the American people on the 1.5 million reports lodged with VAERS.
The hearing was not just a platform for questioning the messaging around vaccines but also an occasion to shine a light on the controversy surrounding Dr. Walensky’s relationship with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). In his opening remarks, Wenstrup said AFT President Randi Weingarten previously testified to having Walensky’s “direct phone number,” provided “line-by-line edits” to draft CDC guidance for schools, and that other CDC scientists “described AFT’s level of access as ‘uncommon.’” When questioned, Walensky conceded she was in contact with the AFT and that it “was interested in having closure triggers” for schools. Wenstrup argued that, whether or not the AFT’s suggested “closure triggers” were accepted, the mere fact of their access and input into the CDC’s guidance had severe consequences.
The Revolving Door Between CDC and Big Pharma
Walensky’s time under the congressional microscope is just a small part of a broader controversy plaguing the CDC and its handling of the pandemic. It’s a saga that does more than just place the director in an uncomfortable position—it draws attention to a longstanding trend among CDC directors and a trajectory leading to the pharmaceutical industry.
In the last four decades, several CDC directors have left their positions to embark on lucrative careers within the pharmaceutical sector. This revolving door raises significant concerns about potential conflicts of interest, breeding skepticism about the institution’s ties with Big Pharma and the impact these connections might have on public health guidance.
The CDC, intended to be an impartial and science-guided entity, appears caught in a tug-of-war between maintaining public trust and managing political and industry pressures. These revelations inevitably raise the question of whether the body is truly independent or whether it is unduly influenced by entities with vested interests.
The same is true for the FDA (who was instrumental in granting rapid approval for the COVID shots. For nearly 40 years, every FDA commissioner but one has joined the board of a pharmaceutical company after leaving the agency.
Scott Gottlieb’s predecessor, Robert Califf, was a consultant who was paid tens of thousands of dollars by the pharmaceutical industry. His clients included Merck, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, and Johnson & Johnson, the last of which paid him over $78,000 in 2012. Following his tenure as commissioner, he took a job with the publicly traded pharma company Biokinetics.
Before Califf, Margaret Hamburg was in charge of the FDA. She was charged in a racketeering lawsuit shortly after leaving the office. The suit accused Hamburg of collusion, conspiracy, and racketeering involving Johnson & Johnson’s drug Levaquin. Hamburg and J&J allegedly withheld the risks of the drug, which ended up killing over 5,000 patients and leaving tens of thousands injured by life-threatening disease.
During her tenure, Hamburg’s husband made hundreds of millions thanks to her work with Johnson & Johnson. She also approved the opioid painkiller Zohydro ER, manufactured by Zogenix Pharmaceuticals. An advisory panel voted 11-2 against approving the drug, citing its risk for abuse and overdose. They were joined by law enforcement agencies, anti-addiction groups, and addiction experts who voiced the same concerns.
Hamburg’s husband’s hedge fund held stock in the drug and made tens of millions on its approval. After stepping down as FDA commissioner, she took a lucrative job with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.
Andrew von Eschenbach
Before Hamburg was appointed, Andrew Von Eschenbach was the FDA head. After leaving his post, von Eschenback took a position on the board of BioTime, a publicly traded biotechnology company that develops stem cell therapies and cancer drugs. Von Eschenbach took over the FDA suddenly, after a 2-month stint by his predecessor, Lester Crawford.
Lester Crawford served only a few months before resigning in the wake of allegations that he had failed to disclose conflicts of interest. A year later, he pled guilty to conflict of interest and false reporting of information about stocks he owned in agricultural and pharmaceutical companies – the very industries he was meant to regulate.
He was given 3 years of probation and a fine.
He soon joined Policy Directions, a lobbying firm that represents companies regulated by the FDA, including Merck, Nestle, and Alpharma Inc., a pharmaceutical company specializing in morphine-based painkillers.
Mark McClellan and Jane Henney
Before Crawford, the FDA was run by Mark McClellan, who went on to work for Johnson & Johnson. McClellan was preceded by Jane Henney, who followed her FDA appointment by becoming a director at Amerisourcebergen Corp, a wholesale drug company. The cycle is virtually endless.
Eroding Trust in Public Health Institutions
The toll this controversy has taken on public trust is profound, potentially jeopardizing the nation’s ability to effectively navigate the current health crisis and future ones. At a time when the public is grappling with an unprecedented pandemic, conflicting messages and skepticism about vaccine efficacy and safety do more harm than good.
This recent congressional hearing underscores the importance of transparency, accuracy, and accountability in public health communication. As the world continues to wrestle with the pandemic, it’s more crucial than ever for institutions like the CDC to uphold these values. It remains to be seen whether the lessons from this saga will be learned and applied to restore faith in public health guidance.
CDC Decision-making and School Closures
In parallel, another topic raised by the committee was the CDC’s decision-making process on school closures. Walensky’s communications with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) came under scrutiny. The AFT was reportedly privy to draft guidelines and provided “line-by-line edits.” While Walensky acknowledged the interaction, she maintained that it was primarily focused on “keeping schools open.”
However, a critical point highlighted during the hearing was the suggestion by Rep. Wenstrup that AFT’s level of access was considered “uncommon” by other CDC scientists. The union, a strong advocate of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination and masks for schoolchildren, even partnered with NewsGuard, a “fact-checking” company with ties to the pharmaceutical industry, further complicating the web of relationships surrounding the pandemic response.
Sweden’s Approach – A Comparison Study
Moreover, Sweden’s approach to the pandemic and the effectiveness of its no-lockdown strategy was also a significant point of discussion. Rep. Meeks questioned Walensky on whether the CDC considered studies from countries such as Sweden, which did not impose widespread school closures.
Walensky responded, citing a study that found teachers in Sweden who had in-person learning had twice the infection rate as those in closed schools. However, a Swedish government commission investigating the country’s COVID-19 response contradicted this, concluding that its no-lockdown strategy was fundamentally correct and defended the decision to keep schools open. The Swedish government commission that investigated the country’s COVID-19 response found its no-lockdown strategy was “fundamentally correct,” and defended the decision to keep schools open, noting the low levels of excess mortality in 2020 and 2021. It also concluded some locked-down countries had “significantly worse outcomes.”
This discrepancy again underscores the need for transparency and rigorous interpretation of scientific data, as differing interpretations can lead to vastly different public health strategies.
The Urgent Need for Public Health Leadership Reform
The fallout from the congressional hearing and the ongoing controversies surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic response demonstrate the urgent need for reforms in public health leadership and governance. Public health institutions must prioritize transparency, accountability, and scientific integrity to rebuild public trust.
The heated Congressional hearing cast a spotlight on the contentious role of the CDC in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response, particularly under the leadership of Dr. Walensky. Despite mounting criticisms and questions about the vaccine program, Walensky’s unwavering support for COVID-19 vaccines raised eyebrows and fueled further debate. The hearing underscored the urgent need for a comprehensive review of the CDC’s ties with the pharmaceutical industry and the potential conflicts of interest inherent in these relationships. As the pandemic fades into the rearview mirror, it is clear that such robust public scrutiny and accountability of public health institutions are more crucial than ever before.
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