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CDC Scientists Expose Agency Corruption

Insights + Opinion

Last month, The Hill published a letter sent by "more than a dozen" senior Center for Disease Control (CDC) scientists charging the agency with nursing an atmosphere of pervasive research fraud.

The group, which claimed to represent scientists across the CDC's diverse branches, calls itself SPIDER (Scientists Preserving Integrity, Diligence and Ethics in Research). The letter to CDC Chief of Staff, Carmen Villar, expressed alarm "about the current state of ethics at our agency." The scientists complained that "our mission is being influenced and shaped by outside parties and rogue interests" and "circumvented by some of our leaders."

The scientists told Villar that, "questionable and unethical practices, occurring at all levels and in all of our respective units, threaten to undermine our credibility and reputation as a trusted leader in public health." The letter charged that staff level scientists "are intimidated and pressed to do things they know are not right," and that, "Senior management officials at CDC are clearly aware and even condone these behaviors."

The scientists cited several recent scandals involving scientific corruption at CDC.

  • They describe a "cover up," by officials, of mismanagement in CDC's Wise Woman Program, which provides screening in low income neighborhoods for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health disorders. According to the letter, CDC officials purposefully misrepresented screening numbers in documents they sent to Congress to conceal failures in the multimillion dollar project. "... definitions were changed and data 'cooked' to make the results look better than they were." The scientists accused high level CDC bosses of suppressing the results of an internal review, involving staff across the CDC, "so media and/or Congressional staff would not become aware of the problems." As part of the systematic cover up, CDC then engaged in a coordinated effort to "bury" these deceptions. "CDC staff has gone out of its way to delay FOIAs and obstruct any inquiry."
  • The scientists also complain about the "troubling" adventures of Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, and Dr. Michael Pratt, Senior Advisor for Global Health at the NCCDPHP. Bowman recently left the CDC following shocking media disclosures that the pair had manipulated scientific studies on soft drink safety in collusion with Coca Cola. The CDC flimflam was part of Coke's campaign to pressure the World Health Organization to relax guidelines for sugar consumption by children in developing nations where the soda industry is aggressively expanding its markets.

The scientists complain that the "climate of disregard" at CDC puts "many" agency scientists in difficult positions. "We are often directed to do things we know are not right." The public record supports SPIDER's allegations that scientists who insist on research integrity suffer persecution by CDC supervisors.

  • On Sept. 27, the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, announced further investigation of corruption in the agency's Zika testing program. That investigation arose from disclosures by laboratory chief Dr. Robert Lanciotti, supervisor of the CDC's prestigious Fort Collins, Colorado lab, that his CDC supervisors were deliberately using a Zika test that agency officials knew would underestimate the number of Zika cases nationwide by some 40 percent. Dr. Lanciotti initially raised the issues internally at CDC and in an email to state public health officials in April 2016. In May, his CDC supervisor responded to this boat rocking by demoting Lanciotti to a non-supervisory position within his lab. Dr. Lanciotti filed a whistleblower claim alleging that his punishment was retaliation for his disclosures. After its initial investigation, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel forced the CDC to reinstate Dr. Lanciotti as lab chief.
  • In a 2010 scandal that predated the Flint, Michigan tragedy, Congress found that the CDC had deliberately manipulated scientific documents and purposefully made inaccurate claims about the safety of Washington, DC drinking water in order to mislead DC residents into believing that their water was safe. The congressional committee found that the CDC's deceit had caused thousands of DC residents to drink water highly contaminated with lead for years to the detriment of their health. As with the Coca Cola and Wise Woman Program scandals, the immediate victims of CDC scientific fraud and mismanagement were disproportionately poor and minority.
  • In August 2014, CDC senior vaccine safety scientist, Dr. William Thompson, invoked federal whistleblower status and testified to Congressman William Posey that his CDC supervisors had ordered him to destroy data and manipulate studies to conceal injuries to black children from certain vaccines. According to Thompson's testimony to Congressman Posey, data analyzed by Thompson and a team of scientists for a key study showed that black boys who received the MMR vaccine on schedule, had a 250% increase in autism diagnoses. The data also pointed to the vaccine as a culprit in the epidemic of regressive autism in both white and black children. A high level CDC official, Dr. Frank DeStefano, ordered Thompson and his fellow scientists to destroy that data in a large garbage can and omit the damning findings from the published study. That study has been cited more than 110 times in published studies on PubMed, and forms the cornerstone of the CDC's orthodoxy that vaccines don't cause autism.
  • One of the key figures in the cover up described by Dr. Thompson is the Director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Dr. Colleen Boyle. Boyle's seminal career coup at the CDC was orchestrating the cover up of Agent Orange and dioxin toxicity in the 1970s. Boyle's handiwork deprived thousands of Vietnam veterans of health benefits until her fraud was uncovered and exposed in comprehensive investigations by Congress and the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Instead of punishing Boyle for corruption and scientific fraud, the CDC rewarded her with a powerful directorship. From that platform, Boyle has managed the CDC's cover up of the vaccine-autism connection.

The recent SPIDER letter highlights the culture of deep-rooted scientific corruption that has metastasized across CDC and become the subject of a decade- long parade of investigations.

  • On Aug. 23, 2000, following a three year investigation, a House Government Reform Committee staff report criticized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC for routinely allowing scientists with conflicts of interest to serve on two influential advisory committees that make recommendations on vaccine policy. The report concluded that, "the majority of members of both committees have financial ties to vaccine manufacturers or hold patents on vaccines under development."
  • Three years later, a 2003 investigation by UPI's Mark Benjamin found that CDC had ignored Congress's recommendations for reform, which stated: "Members of the CDC's Vaccine Advisory Committee get money from vaccine manufacturers. Relationships have included: sharing a vaccine patent; owning stock in a vaccine company; payments for research; getting money to monitor manufacturer vaccine tests; and funding academic departments."
  • A year later, in May of 2004, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, sent a letter to Congress urging congressional action on evidence of scientific fraud in the CDC's vaccine division. Bloch described possible collusion between CDC officials and pharmaceutical companies to manipulate and destroy data in order to conceal the links between mercury-preserved vaccines and the exploding incidence of pediatric neurological disorders including autism.
  • A month later, on June 18, 2004, Congressman Dave Weldon, MD took to the House floor to accuse CDC of failing to reform: "A public relations campaign, rather than sound science, seems to be the modus operandi of officials at the CDC's National Immunization Program." Congressman Weldon concluded that, "The CDC is too conflicted to oversee this vaccine safety function."
  • In January 2006, amidst the corruption scandals, the prestigious journal Nature editorialized in reference to vaccine safety that, "there is a strong case for a well-resourced independent agency that commands the trust of both the government and the public."
  • A year later, in 2007, Weldon and Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced the Vaccine Safety and Public Confidence Assurance Act of 2007, a bill to create a new agency to supervise vaccine safety that reported directly to the Secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and to mandate independent vaccine safety research. Weldon declared that, despite all the scandals and investigations, there were no signs of reform at CDC. "Federal agencies charged with overseeing vaccine safety research have failed," he said. "They have failed to provide sufficient resources for vaccine safety research. They have failed to adequately fund extramural research. And, they have failed to free themselves from conflicts of interest that serve to undermine public confidence in the safety of vaccines."
  • In June of that year, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, of the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, published "CDC Off Center," yet another lengthy exposé of corruption and mismanagement at CDC. The report detailed "how an agency tasked with fighting disease has spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars for failed prevention efforts, international junkets, and lavish facilities, but cannot demonstrate it is controlling disease."
  • In December 2009, the HHS Inspector General published the results of a lengthy investigation of corruption in the CDC's vaccine division. That shocking report painted the CDC as a hopelessly corrupted arm of the pharmaceutical industry. It described, in detail, mismanagement, dysfunction and the alarming conflicts of interest that suborn the CDC's research, regulatory and policymaking functions. The report discloses how CDC allows vaccine industry profiteers to make millions of dollars by serving on advisory boards that add new vaccines to the schedule. In a typical example, Dr. Paul Offit, in 1999, sat on the CDC's vaccine advisory committee and voted to add the rotavirus vaccine to CDC's schedule, paving the way for him to make a fortune on his own rotavirus vaccine patent. Offit and his business partners sold the royalties to his rotavirus vaccine patent to Merck in 2006 for $182 million. Offit told Newsweek, "It was like winning the lottery!" HHS investigation revealed that 97% of CDC's scientific committee members failed to complete the mandatory conflict of interest disclosures and that as many as 64% of committee members disclosed conflicts of interest that were not acted upon by the CDC.
  • In 2014, the chief of the HHS Office of Research Integrity (ORI), David Wright, announced his resignation in a scathing letter that characterized HHS as a remarkably dysfunctional agency. ORI's function is to monitor research misconduct including, "falsification" and "fabrication" of science at the CDC, FDA and other public health agencies. Calling the post, "The very worst job I've ever had," Wright decried an "intensely political environment" where his supervisors told him that his job was to be a "team player" and "to make my bosses look good" and where he spent "exorbitant amounts of time in meetings and in generating repetitive and often meaningless data and reports to make our precinct of the bureaucracy look productive," rather than pursuing its mission of detecting and punishing scientific fraud.

Given this long history of deeply entrenched scientific chicanery at the CDC, it's no surprise that scientists are now complaining. If Donald Trump is sincere about his promise to "Drain the Swamp" in the federal bureaucracy, he should begin by appointing an honest and able CDC director who can restore transparency, credibility, robust science and regulatory independence at the agency and who will turn around the culture of corruption that has been so damaging to children's health.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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