Most members of a key Senate committee are rejecting President-elect Donald Trump’s skepticism about the safety of vaccines, which suggests Trump could face significant backlash in Congress if he seeks to advance the anti-vaccine movement from the Oval Office.
In the week following Trump’s controversial meeting with vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., STAT contacted all 23 members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and asked whether they shared Trump’s concerns about vaccine safety. The committee oversees public health, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and held a hearing last February on the reemergence of diseases that can be prevented by vaccines.
Eighteen senators, including eight of the 12 Republicans in the committee’s majority, expressed confidence in the US vaccination system and recognized the health benefits of vaccination.
Representatives for three lawmakers — Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky and Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado — did not respond to repeated requests for comment by phone and email.
Staff for two other Republicans, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Richard Burr of North Carolina, declined to comment.
In his response, the Republican chairman of the committee, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, put it plainly: “Sound science is this: Vaccines save lives.”
“They save the lives of the people who are vaccinated,” Alexander said in a statement. “They protect the lives of the vulnerable around them — such as infants and those who are ill.”
No senator who responded indicated any level of concern regarding US vaccine safety. Allegations about the dangers of vaccines have been thoroughly discredited by the current science.
Indiana Republican Todd Young did offer a measure of understanding to those opposed to or skeptical of government-mandated vaccinations.
“As the father of four children, Sen. Young is persuaded by the scientific evidence in favor of vaccination and immunization,” a spokesperson for Young said. “However, he also understands citizens’ concerns anytime government expressly intervenes in health care decisions.”
Other Republicans were straightforward in endorsing the health benefits of vaccination.
“As a doctor,” said a spokesman for Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy, “Senator Cassidy knows the US vaccine program is both safe and effective.”
Some Democrats went a step further, criticizing Trump’s comments on the issue.
Senator Al Franken of Minnesota “believes that vaccines are effective, safe, save lives, and are one of the greatest public health achievements of our times,” a spokesman said. “And he believes that claiming otherwise is dangerous and irresponsible.”
Trump has a history of questioning the safety of child vaccinations, and, like Kennedy, has previously alluded to a link between vaccination and autism despite a lack of scientific evidence to support the claim.
The issue was thrust into the spotlight last week when, following his meeting with Trump, Kennedy claimed to have accepted the president-elect’s offer to chair a panel on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks disputed Kennedy hours later, though she then said the president-elect is “exploring the possibility of forming a commission on autism.” The central claim of many anti-vaccine activists is that childhood vaccinations lead to autism.
Kennedy has alleged that the chemical compound thimerosal causes autism in some vaccinated children, but the compound has not been used in vaccines administered to children in 15 years.
In addition to linking vaccines to autism, Trump has also discussed dosing and vaccines schedules, detailing the modifications he and his wife, Melania, made for their son Barron. The concept that simultaneously administered vaccines can overload a child’s immune system is also not supported by science.
Contrary to Trump, the Senate health committee’s leaders have, if anything, lamented over the last few years that fewer children are being vaccinated.
“From smallpox to polio, we have learned in the United States that vaccines save lives,” Alexander said to begin the February 2015 hearing on the topic. “And yet a troubling number of parents are not vaccinating their children.”
Of the 18 senators who voiced their confidence in the US vaccine system, eight were Republicans: Senators Young, Alexander, Cassidy, Orrin Hatch, Pat Roberts, Lisa Murkowski, Tim Scott, and Susan Collins.
They were joined by nine Democrats: Senators Franken, Patty Murray, Tim Kaine, Chris Murphy, Maggie Hassan, Bob Casey, Sheldon Whitehouse, Tammy Baldwin, and Elizabeth Warren — as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Trump does not have direct authority to change US vaccine policy. Vaccine recommendations for children are developed by a panel of scientists, known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trump cannot order the committee to make any changes to the recommended vaccine schedule that are not based in scientific evidence.
He could, however, appoint anti-vaccine officials to his administration and use his bully pulpit to spread vaccine skepticism among state officials, who do have the authority to require vaccinations, and the general public.