Dr. Scott Gottlieb to Bill Gates, others: Shots at agencies over coronavirus ‘erode confidence’

Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Wednesday he worries that continued criticism of U.S. health agencies will only further diminish the American public’s trust in a potential coronavirus vaccine.

“This entire crisis has been plagued by statements that I think are imprecise. People who are in public health positions, people who are in political leadership positions, I think need to be very careful about how they communicate about these things because they’re very complex and they can’t be summed up, frankly, in a soundbite,” Gottlieb said on “Squawk Box.” “So when you put out a soundbite that could potentially erode confidence, it does erode confidence.” 

Gottlieb’s comments came in response to a question about recent remarks from billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, who said he believes the FDA has lost credibility during the pandemic. CNBC reached out to the Microsoft co-founder’s foundation, which has made donations to advance vaccine development, for comment.

Gottlieb, who ran the FDA in the Trump administration from May 2017 to April 2019, said on CNBC there have been problematic statements across the political spectrum. “I think there’s better ways to air those concerns in a more constructive fashion,” said Gottlieb, a board member at Pfizer, which is developing a potential vaccine. 

To be sure, Gottlieb said there have been “some missteps by agencies and by political officials, and I think that then breeds further confusion.” For example, he blasted the actions recently reported by Politico, which said communications officials within the Department of Health and Human Services pushed to review or change the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports on the coronavirus.

“That’s wholly inappropriate,” Gottlieb said, while explaining that the CDC reports are traditionally “held in very high regard, and people did not get to weigh in on those. They were treated as sort of an independent scientific process.”

Gottlieb said that when he was at the FDA and there were CDC reports pertaining to his agency, he would see them only as they were going out to the broader public. “Those should not be interfered with, and when you see things like that happening, that’s the kind of stuff that erodes confidence,” he said.

“It’s frankly absurd to let that happen, to let these things happen on the margins that aren’t important,” he added. “What you end up doing is eroding confidence for the really important things like a vaccine approval decision. Sometimes, people can’t distinguish where the government is and isn’t going to be interfering because they’re not there.” 

Gottlieb said he trusts that the decision-making process at the FDA will not be influenced by political considerations. 

“It’s going to undergo multiple independent layers of review, and if it’s interfered with, we’re going to know it,” Gottlieb said on “Squawk Box.” “I don’t think that the people who run this process, and who are engaged in it at the FDA, and the people who are external to the FDA, are going to allow this to get interfered with without letting all of us know it.” 

Concern is growing across the scientific community and the American public that President Donald Trump‘s administration may exert political pressure to influence regulatory decisions over a vaccine to prevent Covid-19. Trump has often said a vaccine could be ready before the Nov. 3 presidential election, stoking worries about political calculations outweighing safety and effectiveness. 

However, the current head of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Stephen Hahn, said last week he has “no intention” of overruling career scientists at the agency. Hahn added, “I have complete and absolute confidence in the scientists at the FDA and the decision-making that they have here.” 

Gottlieb predicted that career officials charged with approving the vaccine may quit their jobs if they were to feel the process is being influenced by politics. 

“I think you’ll see resignations and you’ll see something very public. I know the folks who are going to be engaged in this, and they have a lot of integrity and they jealously guard that process,” he said.

“If the process is preserved, and they feel they haven’t been leaned on and they’ve had their ability to make independent decisions here and their prerogatives have been maintained, you’re going to know that, too,” he added. “I’m pretty confident that we’re going to have transparency into how this decision gets made.” 

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings‘ and Royal Caribbean‘s “Healthy Sail Panel.” 

Originally published on CNBC

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