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Image: FDA Building
The Food and Drug Administration campus in Silver Spring, Maryland on Oct. 14, 2015.Andrew Harnik / AP file

Why it's a problem for the White House to threaten the FDA

This shouldn't have to be said, but the FDA's decision should be based on science, not Team Trump's political timeline.


It was an important moment yesterday when an independent panel of trusted and credible experts recommended that the Food and Drug Administration authorize emergency use of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine in people ages 16 and older. A total of 17 of the panel's 22 members supported authorization.

But as a political matter, what happened next mattered, too. This morning, Donald Trump published a tweet describing the FDA as 'a big, old, slow turtle." The outgoing president, in a missive directed at FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, added, "Get the dam [sic] vaccines out NOW, Dr. Hahn. Stop playing games and start saving lives!!!"

As the Washington Post reported this afternoon, the lobbying campaign from the West Wing grew quite a bit more intense after that.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Friday told Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, to submit his resignation if the agency does not clear the nation's first coronavirus vaccine by day's end, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss what happened.

The article added that the White House lobbying "led the FDA to accelerate its timetable for clearing America's first vaccine from Saturday morning to later Friday."

At a certain level, this may seem entirely defensible. The coronavirus pandemic is an intensifying crisis that's taking a brutal toll on the public, and the sooner effective vaccines are available, the better it will be for everyone. It stands to reason that the White House would want an expedited process.

But everyone involved in the process also realizes that the public has to have confidence in the system and the vaccine itself. Officials, in other words, want people to take the vaccine and have faith this process has not been influenced or compromised by politics.

When the White House chief of staff starts threatening the FDA commissioner, it's counter-productive, reinforcing concerns that the process has been completely politicized.

This shouldn't have to be said, but the FDA's decision should be based on science, not Team Trump's political timeline.