Robert Kennedy Jr., the environmental activist and leading vaccine skeptic, says that it has been months since he has talked with White House officials about chairing a vaccine safety commission — and that the idea of such a panel may no longer be under consideration.
“I’ve had no discussions specifically about the vaccine safety commission, probably since February,” Kennedy told STAT. “You’d have to ask the White House. It may be that it’s evolved.”
Kennedy said, however, he has met with a series of top administration officials about vaccine safety since Trump took office, including officials at the upper ranks of the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health. He said those meetings took place at the request of the White House.
A White House spokesman, asked about the vaccine safety commission, said there were no announcements to make at this time. He declined to comment on whether the White House had arranged meetings for Kennedy.
Other officials confirmed that Kennedy had met with agency leaders, but emphasized that U.S. health officials strongly believe in the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
It was Kennedy who announced in January that Trump was going to establish a vaccine safety commission and that he had been asked to serve as its chairman. He made the revelation after a meeting with then-president-elect Trump, who had frequently expressed support for the debunked theory that vaccines can cause autism and who, during the presidential campaign, said he supported “smaller doses over a longer period of time.”
The news alarmed public health officials and vaccine proponents who saw a recipe for disaster in the public pairing of a president who espouses — and tweets about — links between vaccines and autism and a high-profile activist who has argued for years that vaccines can trigger a range of disorders, including autism, asthma, food allergies, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
They feared a Trump-appointed, Kennedy-led commission would further foster vaccine rejection and vaccine hesitancy. Only a small fraction of American children are completely unvaccinated; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate they make up less than 1 percent of children.
But vaccine hesitancy — a term used to describe parents who harbor concerns about the safety of vaccinations and who as a result may delay vaccinating their children against some pathogens or who will accept some inoculations but not others — represents a larger and more concerning group.
The seeds of these related movements are giving rise to outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as a large measles epidemic earlier this year in Minnesota.
Kennedy has said his views on vaccines have been misrepresented by the media, and has rejected the term “anti-vaxxer.” He said he would only speak to STAT about the vaccine safety commission if the interview were presented in a Q&A format.
A spokesperson for the FDA confirmed that Kennedy met with Dr. Peter Marks, head of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, and other FDA staff on March 30. Vaccines are regulated by this division of the FDA.
The session, categorized as a “listening meeting” on the FDA’s public calendar, is listed as being between FDA staff and representatives of the World Mercury Project, a group Kennedy runs.
“The FDA routinely receives requests to meet with stakeholders,” spokeswoman Lyndsay Meyer said in an email. “In this case, the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research received a request from the World Mercury Project to discuss vaccine safety.”
Kennedy met on May 31 with top leaders of the NIH. Director Francis Collins and Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak attended the meeting, along with the heads of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Kennedy laid out his concerns about vaccines at the meeting, presenting the information he views as supporting evidence, according to an official familiar with the discussion who spoke on condition of anonymity. But the NIH participants countered, the agency suggested in an email.
“In the meeting, NIH noted that there is strong and extensive scientific data that support the safety and efficacy of vaccines,” a spokesman said. “NIH reaffirmed with Mr. Kennedy that vaccines are among the most beneficial health interventions in history in terms of the number of lives that have been saved over decades, have been shown to be very safe, and are vital to the public health goal of preventing diseases.”
While Trump and Kennedy share some concerns about vaccines, the extent to which the president wants to prioritize the issue has never been clear.
Neither he nor his aides ever confirmed that a vaccine safety commission was to be established. Hope Hicks, a longtime Trump employee who is now interim White House director of communications, walked back the idea hours after Kennedy announced it, saying that while Trump was exploring the possibility of setting up a commission on vaccine safety, no final decision had been made.
And prominent vaccine advocates have been trying to use their influence to dissuade Trump from embarking on this path. In March, for instance, Trump met — for the second time since Election Day — with billionaire Bill Gates, a staunch proponent of vaccines. Gates told STAT a few days after the meeting that in both sessions he had pressed the case that vaccines are miracles and that there is no link between autism and vaccines.
In the months that have followed, the Trump administration has named people who strongly champion vaccines to leadership positions in key Department of Health and Human Services agencies.
Among them is Scott Gottlieb, the new FDA commissioner, who has expressed his support for vaccines as recently as late last week, tweeting: “Vaccines save lives.”
Vaccines save lives. #vaccineswork https://t.co/oWol1N5wXh
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) August 18, 2017
Brenda Fitzgerald, the new CDC director, actively promoted vaccinations during her six years as Georgia’s public health commissioner. She reasserted that view earlier this month from her Twitter account.
Vaccines are one of the greatest #publichealth achievements. Immunization gives us the power to protect. #NIAM17 pic.twitter.com/smGLrd6k8y
— Dr Brenda Fitzgerald (@CDCDirector) August 3, 2017
Jerome Adams, who was nominated by Trump to serve as surgeon general, is also on the record as supporting vaccines, declaring there is no link between them and autism.
The truth about vaccines: vaccine preventable diseases at record lows thnx to vaccines, no link to autism. pic.twitter.com/KS0GT3TWF3
— Jerome Adams (@JeromeAdamsMD) April 27, 2016
Naming those individuals to those posts is a positive sign, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“I think those appointments are appointments that are directly adverse to what his [Trump’s] position is about vaccines,” he said. “So it tells you that his position either isn’t strongly held or wasn’t held at all. It’s certainly not a priority. … And he has other things to worry about. So I just don’t think this is going to be an issue.”
Asked if he’s disappointed that a vaccine safety commission may not be in the cards, Kennedy said he’d be happy with any steps toward safer vaccines.
“The commission was not my idea. I was asked to chair a commission and I agreed that if the commission were created that I would do that, I would sit on it,” he said. But it’s “up to the White House how they want to handle this issue.”
Clarification: This story originally said that Kennedy had met with “agency heads” at the NIH and FDA. He said he met with officials including NIH Director Francis Collins as well as the head of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Peter Marks.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Dr. Paul Offit as head of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.