WASHINGTON — Outspoken vaccine critic Robert Kennedy Jr. said Tuesday that he had accepted a position in Donald Trump’s administration as chair of a panel on vaccine safety and scientific integrity, in what would be the clearest sign yet of the president-elect’s suspicions about vaccines.
Kennedy’s remarks followed his meeting with the president-elect at Trump Tower and immediately sparked outrage from scientists, pediatricians, and public health experts, who fear the incoming administration could give legitimacy to skeptics of childhood immunizations despite a huge body of scientific research demonstrating that vaccines are safe. Many of those skeptics believe vaccines are a cause of autism.
Hours later, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement that the president-elect was “exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism,” but said “no decisions have been made at this time.”
Kennedy was unequivocal about an offer when speaking to reporters at Trump Tower in New York after the meeting. He also said Trump has doubts and questions about current vaccine policies.
“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,” Kennedy said. “And that everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have — he’s very pro-vaccine, as am I — but they’re as safe as they possibly can be.”
In an interview with Science, Kennedy said there would be about a dozen people on the panel, a “mix between science people and prominent Americans.”
Asked when the panel would be convened, Kennedy said: “We didn’t talk about the details but [Trump] expressed urgency about it — that he wanted it done. We talked about a one-year commitment.”
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House who has been advising the president-elect on health matters, previously blasted Kennedy for his criticism of vaccine safety in his book, “To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular Socialist Machine.”
“Perhaps no anti-scientific argument is more dangerous today than the claim put forward by radical environmentalists, most notably Robert F. Kennedy Jr., that childhood vaccinations can cause autism,” Gingrich wrote in the 2010 book. “Numerous peer-reviewed studies have disproved this connection.”
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Gingrich backed away from his earlier criticism of Kennedy. As long as the panel is “appropriately organized” and has a realistic, scientific basis, he said, “I’m very comfortable with him taking the position.”
“I think if he is prepared to sit down with scientists, he may challenge them and they may change his mind,” Gingrich said, in which case “nobody would be more powerful” in changing the minds of anti-vaccination advocates.
Kennedy has repeatedly questioned the safety of vaccines and advanced arguments that there is a link between the immunizations and autism. He has suggested that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines, can be harmful to children, a notion that has been widely debunked.
Public health agencies did suggest manufacturers eliminate or reduce the amount of thimerosal in childhood vaccines and many have done so. But a number of studies have also discredited the idea that thimerosal is a cause of autism.
Scott Badesch, president of the Autism Society, a patient advocacy group, said the long debate over autism should be at an end.
“There’s been a long discussion as to whether vaccines cause autism,” he said. “Everything suggests there is no link.”
“That he [Trump] meets with people doesn’t surprise me,” said Dr. Paul A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “That he would take this next step, which is to take a man who has no expertise about science or vaccines and make him the head of a vaccine safety … committee is truly amazing to me.”
Other physicians reacted with disbelief on Twitter.
Boston University School of Public Health Dean Dr. Sandro Galea called the appointment “Troubling.”
Kennedy’s work on autism has created controversy over the years. In 2005 he wrote an expose, co-published by Salon and Rolling Stone, contending that scientists were hiding the link between thimerosal and autism. Years later, Salon retracted the story, noting its basic thesis was inaccurate.
But Kennedy was not finished with the subject. He edited a 2014 book called “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: The Evidence Supporting the Immediate Removal of Mercury — a Known Neurotoxin — from Vaccines.” The volume makes the case that thimerosal is still causing autism and other neurological problems, and should be eliminated worldwide.
While Trump’s casual remarks on vaccines have alarmed public health advocates, they have energized the anti-vaccination movement. He met over the summer with Andrew Wakefield, a former medical doctor who wrote a well-publicized study that kicked off the movement. Wakefield’s study was later discredited and his medical license was revoked.
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he wants “smaller doses over a longer period of time.” He has previously tweeted: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”
Kennedy is the son of the former attorney general and nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy.
This story has been updated to correct the date of the meeting between Trump and Kennedy and to include the statement from Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks.