Merkley, Colleagues Urge Pence to Protect Federal COVID-19 Response from Political Interference

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, along with seven colleagues, today pressed Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, to ensure that the federal response to the coronavirus outbreak is grounded in scientific fact and experts’ recommendations—not in politics. 

The senators’ letter comes amid reports that the Trump Administration has repeatedly ignored the advice of public health experts in favor of promoting the Administration’s political priorities. 

“As it becomes clear that the virus is spreading more widely in the United States, it is imperative that decisions on how to handle and treat infected patients be made based on the best scientific information available and guided by public health considerations, not politics,” the senators wrote in their letter.

During the evacuation of Americans from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, an unclear chain of command led to other federal agencies overruling scientific advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the evacuated passengers were diverted from a FEMA Center for Domestic Preparedness in Alabama, after President Trump personally requested that the passengers be moved to an alternate location. In addition, White House officials reportedly overruled CDC officials who wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile people refrain from commercial air travel, and Vice President Pence has recently moved to centralize all communications through his office—running the risk of muzzling public health experts’ warnings out of concern for their political or economic consequences.

The senators also expressed concern with the composition of the Task Force, which includes only six out of 20 members with medical backgrounds, and includes several advisors with close ties to the pharmaceutical industry who have a potential conflict of interest in the federal government’s response to the outbreak. 

“The global coronavirus emergency may be the most significant health and safety challenge to confront your Administration. Elevating public health expertise over political interests is crucial to crafting an effective response and maintaining public confidence in the administration’s response to the crisis,” the senators continued. 

To address their concerns, the senators asked the Vice President to make clear how he will protect communications and the decision-making process from political interference, including details on the process for reviewing public communications and the protocol for relocating patients across national borders or state lines, as well as how the vaccine or treatment development process will be protected from conflicts of interest related to pharmaceutical company ties.

The letter is the most recent action by Merkley to address the coronavirus public health crisis. Previously, he used his position as the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to successfully fight for $61 million in funding for the FDA in the $8.3 billion coronavirus spending package that President Trump signed into law last week, and worked to swiftly pass that measure into law. Merkley has also urged the Coronavirus Task Force to halt immigration policies that risk accelerating the spread of illness, pressed the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and top private prison operators for detailed plans to prevent outbreaks among incarcerated communities, and launched a resource webpage for Oregonians to access critical and up-to-date information about how to stay safe.

The letter was also signed by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Richard Blumenthal (D-NJ), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Brian Schatz (D-HI).

The full text of the letter is available here.