How the F.D.A. Stood Up to the President


Alyssa Farah, the White House communications director, said, “The White House has always encouraged the F.D.A. to follow the science and their expert medical viewpoints while also encouraging the F.D.A. to work around the clock to help advance therapeutics and ultimately a vaccine that will save American lives.” An F.D.A. spokesman also said that the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services “continue to support the science-based decisions of the agency’s career professionals.”

In what might be the final months of the Trump administration, and close enough to the election to make his firing unlikely, Dr. Hahn seems to be trying to save the F.D.A. from the fate of its sister agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose scientists have been stripped of much of their authority and independence in responding to the pandemic.

“It’s better late than never, but I do think we can see a lot of damage has been done,” said Dr. Jesse L. Goodman, the F.D.A.’s chief scientist from 2009 to 2014. “And I don’t think they are out of the woods yet.”

It has been a bleak year for the F.D.A. and morale is low, according to interviews with high- and midlevel employees over the past six months. F.D.A. scientists and policymakers have questioned whether Dr. Hahn could preserve their scientific integrity in the face of a president who openly calls them untrustworthy actors of the deep state.

Over the past few tumultuous months, Dr. Hahn has commiserated with Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the C.D.C., who has also been widely criticized for failing to stand up to the White House. At a late September birthday party for Seema Verma, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator, Drs. Redfield and Hahn joked about quitting together to open a restaurant, according to several people who were there.

To many F.D.A. scientists, Dr. Hahn, an oncologist and former hospital administrator with no experience in Washington, has been a disappointing leader for much of his 10-month tenure. Under his leadership, the F.D.A. authorized hydroxychloroquine for hospitalized Covid-19 patients despite a lack of evidence, only to reverse the decision once the drug was tied to severe side effects.

In late August, on the eve of the Republican convention, Dr. Hahn made a significant error at a news conference with the president announcing the approval of plasma treatments for Covid-19. The commissioner greatly exaggerated the benefits of the treatment, angering the scientific community. He publicly corrected the record.

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