A McMaster University professor is at the centre of a White House controversy over reports he tried to muzzle government scientists, demanded the power to edit COVID-19 documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and accused CDC staff of attempting to “hurt” U.S. President Donald Trump.
Paul Elias Alexander, an assistant professor of health-research methods at the Hamilton university, joined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year. He was brought in as a scientific adviser to Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign staffer with no scientific or medical background installed as HHS’s assistant secretary of public affairs in April.
On Wednesday, HHS announced Dr. Alexander is “leaving the department” permanently and Mr. Caputo will take a 60-day medical absence. The development comes after Politico and the Washington Post published a string of e-mails from Dr. Alexander and Mr. Caputo attempting to silence scientists working on COVID-19 or make them change their reports to downplay the pandemic’s severity and support Mr. Trump’s messaging.
In a lengthy e-mail to The Globe and Mail on Wednesday and a subsequent interview, Dr. Alexander accused the CDC of “generating pseudo scientific reports” and said he was more qualified to analyze COVID-19 data than the 1,700 scientists at the agency.
“None of those people have my skills,” Dr. Alexander said. “I make the judgment whether this is crap.”
Dr. Alexander would not discuss his relationship with Mr. Caputo. Two months ago, Mr. Caputo told The Hamilton Spectator that he and Dr. Alexander became friends after he made appearances on a radio show Mr. Caputo hosted in Buffalo, N.Y. Dr. Alexander told The Globe that he started advising HHS as a “volunteer” in March and only joined the staff in July.
Dr. Alexander said that he is originally from the Caribbean and has legal status in the U.S., but “Canada is my home” and “the greatest nation in the world.” He received his PhD in health research methodologies from McMaster in 2015, and a master’s degree from the University of Oxford. He also worked for the Infectious Diseases Society of America in Washington from January, 2017, to December, 2019.
McMaster distanced itself from Dr. Alexander on Wednesday.
“He is not currently teaching, and he is not paid by the university for his contract role as a part-time assistant professor. As a consultant, he is not speaking on behalf of McMaster University or the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence and Impact,” spokeswoman Susan Emigh wrote in an e-mail.
McMaster professor Gordon Guyatt, who supervised Dr. Alexander’s PhD work, said he had been asked to direct all questions about his former student to the university’s public-relations department. . Dr. Guyatt is known for coining the term “evidence-based medicine,” which describes the idea that healthcare decisions should be guided by scientific methods.
The CDC issues Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports that inform doctors about how the pandemic is progressing. These publications are written by apolitical researchers. But after Mr. Caputo joined HHS, his office began demanding the ability to make changes to the documents.
In one e-mail reported by Politico, Dr. Alexander told officials at CDC such reports should not be published “unless I read and agree" and can “tweak” the documents. In another, he blasted the agency for reporting on COVID-19 risks to children, contrary to Mr. Trump’s call for schools to reopen.
“CDC to me appears to be writing hit pieces on the administration,” he wrote. "Very misleading by CDC and shame on them.”
Dr. Alexander also took umbrage with a CDC report about coronavirus’s threat to pregnant women. He wrote that the agency was “undermining the President,” the Washington Post reported, because the document made it seem “as if the President and his administration can’t fix this.”
In e-mails to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Alexander also tried to give orders on what Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.'s top infectious diseases expert, would say publicly. In these messages, Dr. Alexander said he “vehemently” disagreed with Dr. Fauci on widespread testing for university students, and asked that he tell the public masks for schoolchildren are not necessary, Politico reported. Dr. Alexander claimed “there is no data, none, zero, across the entire world” that showed COVID-19 transmission in children. He also ordered the NIH to stop adhering to randomized controlled trials, generally considered the best way to test new drugs.
Dr. Alexander’s positions in these e-mails largely contradict scientific consensus and back Mr. Trump. The President has often played down the seriousness of the pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans. And his allies have called for new COVID-19 treatments to be approved using lower-quality studies than randomized control trials.
Dr. Alexander told The Globe and Mail that he was pushing the CDC to make their reports more upbeat so people would feel more confident going out and spending money.
“Your restaurant will be able to keep their store open and have their livelihood and not go bankrupt, hang themselves because of no money. The employee could keep a job and not go into depths of despair and drink and commit suicide,” he said. “Don’t just put in negative things. People want to hear the good news too."
Dr. Alexander said “there might have been one or two times” that the CDC changed its reports because of him, but he said he “can’t remember exactly” what the changes were. Dr. Alexander said that “nobody at HHS manipulated any data” in the reports, and that his changes were about messaging and presentation.
He praised Dr. Guyatt as his “mentor,” and also lauded Scott Atlas, a radiologist and White House adviser who has advocated herd immunity and less testing in the pandemic, both contrary to most scientific opinion. “This is someone who truly cares about the well-being of people and politics,” Dr. Alexander said.
Asked about his accusations that government scientists were undermining Mr. Trump, Dr. Alexander said he did not think agencies should contradict any president’s policy. But he expressed some regret at his word choice.
“I did things with good intentions,” he said. “Sometimes you make a mess, you are a bumbling idiot and you make a fool of yourself.”
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