WASHINGTON — Representative Tom Price, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, said on Tuesday that science does not support the claim that vaccines cause autism — putting some distance between himself and his future boss on the issue.
Price, a Georgia congressman, appeared before the Senate Finance Committee. Much of the discussion focused on the Affordable Care Act and Medicare, as well as Price’s personal investments in health care companies, the dominant news stories around his nomination.
But Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey turned the hearing to vaccines and scientific controversies. Trump has met with multiple vaccine skeptics during his campaign and since his election. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of those skeptics, said after his meeting with Trump that the president would establish a vaccine safety commission. Trump’s aides later disputed that claim, though they did say he was considering creating a committee on autism.
“Do vaccines cause autism?” Menendez asked Price during Tuesday’s hearing, the first time the issue had been raised with the HHS nominee during his confirmation.
“I think the science in that instance is that they don’t,” Price said. He went on: “But there are individuals in our country who are very —”
Menendez cut him off.
“I’m not asking about individuals,” he said. “I’m asking about science.”
The senator went through a string of scientific issues during his interrogation of Price.
Does HIV cause AIDS? Price affirmed it did.
Do immigrants carry leprosy to the United States? Price didn’t answer directly, saying instead that contact between two people can transmit infectious diseases.
Do abortions cause breast cancer? Price said the science showed they did not.
Mendendez concluded his line of questioning by asking if Price would commit to “swiftly and unequivocally debunk false claims.”
“What I’ll commit to doing is the due diligence” that HHS always does to provide factual information to the public, Price said.
“Dictated by science, I would hope?” Menendez asked.
“Without a doubt,” Price said.
The questions to Price come as Trump’s commitment to science has been cast into doubt, particularly by his flirtation with vaccine skepticism. Trump has on numerous occasions in recent years appeared to link vaccines to autism. Vaccine skeptics who have met with him have said they believe the president is an ally.
Trump also has a history of doubting the official science about infectious disease outbreaks, which may have prompted Menendez’s questions.
“Ebola is much easier to transmit than the CDC and government representatives are admitting,” Trump tweeted in October 2014. “Spreading all over Africa-and fast. Stop flights[.]”