Donald Trump, who promoted the debunked conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism during his presidential campaign, asked a fellow skeptic of the scientific consensus on the issue, Robert Kennedy Jr., to chair a commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity” during a meeting at Trump Tower on Tuesday.
Kennedy, who recently accused the Centers for Disease Control of orchestrating a “cover up of the vaccine-autism connection,” and scolds the media for “undue reverence for the CDC” told reporters after the meeting that “President-elect Trump was very thoughtful on the issue,” and that he had agreed to lead the commission.
“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it,” Kennedy said. “He says his opinion doesn’t matter, but the science does matter and we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science.”
“Everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have — he’s very pro-vaccine, as am I — but that they’re as safe as they possibly can be,” Kennedy added.
Kennedy’s activism on the issue is well-known. He launched a new advocacy group, the World Mercury Project, in November with a fundraising pitch in which he likened vaccinating children to “assault and battery — it’s child abuse, in some cases, it’s even worse.”
“This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country,” Kennedy said in 2015, during an unsuccessful fight to block the passage of a new law in California that eliminated exemptions for “personal belief” from mandatory childhood vaccinations.
Dr. Richard Pan, a pediatrician who represents Sacramento in the California Senate, rejected Kennedy’s comments at the time. “I think it is dangerous that he is spreading misinformation about something that’s very important for public health,” Pan told the Sacramento Bee after Kennedy invited state legislators to an anti-vaccine documentary. “Autism rates have continued to rise even though we are not using thimerosal in vaccines for children,” Pan noted. “We still haven’t figured out exactly what causes autism. We do know it’s not vaccines,” he said.
Pan was among the many people to express dismay on Tuesday that Trump plans to use the power of the presidency to advance Kennedy’s anti-science agenda.
Appointing RFK Jr. to head vaccine safety panel is like appointing David Duke to head panel on race relations. Disgusting & irresponsible.— Seth Mnookin (@sethmnookin) January 10, 2017
The inevitable trajectory: Trump promotes anti-vax nonsense. Breitbart & Infowars politicize. Wakefield goes on Hannity. Same old vortex.— Jason Fagone (@jfagone) January 10, 2017
Before entering the political arena, Trump had made it plain on Twitter that he was convinced that vaccines cause autism, despite the fact that the medical study that first suggested a link in 1998 was formally retracted in 2004 by the Lancet, the British medical journal where the research was published.
Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2012
Lots of autism and vaccine response. Stop these massive doses immediately. Go back to single, spread out shots! What do we have to lose.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2012
If I were President I would push for proper vaccinations but would not allow one time massive shots that a small child cannot take - AUTISM.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 27, 2014
I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2014
Trump held fast to his erroneous belief despite being corrected by Dr. Ben Carson during a Republican primary debate in 2015.
Asked during that televised exchange if Trump should stop saying that vaccines cause autism, Carson said, “I think he’s an intelligent man and will make the correct decision after getting the real facts.” Trump then described anecdotal evidence which, he said, showed that there was a link.
When Carson replied by saying, “the fact of the matter is: we have extremely well-documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccinations,” Trump shook his head in vigorous disagreement.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 found that majorities of Democrats (76 percent), Republicans (65 percent) and independents (65 percent) said that vaccines should be required. Still, sizable minorities, including 34 percent of Republicans and 22 percent of Democrats, told Pew that parents should be able to decide whether or not to have their children vaccinated.
As the Boston Globe’s STAT news site reported in November, Trump’s election energized anti-vaccine activists, including Andrew Wakefield, the leader of the movement who met with the candidate in August during a fundraiser in Florida.
Wakefield was stripped of his medical license by the General Medical Council of Britain in 2010 for ethical violations in his work on the retracted study that first linked the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella with autism. The council found that Wakefield had failed to disclose that he had received funds from lawyers who were mounting a case against vaccine manufacturers.
As Susan Dominus explained in the New York Times Magazine in 2011, “the British Medical Journal concluded that the research was not just unethically financed but also ‘fraudulent’ (that timelines were misrepresented, for example, to suggest direct culpability of the vaccine).”
Wakefield told STAT that he and a group of anti-vaccine activists spent nearly an hour with Trump in August. “I found him to be extremely interested, genuinely interested, and open-minded on this issue, so that was enormously refreshing,” Wakefield said.
Update | 7:05 p.m.:
After news of the appointment was widely criticized, Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, said in a statement he had not yet decided for certain if he would form a presidential commissioned on the issue.
“The president-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time,” Hicks said.