I am back from my travels and was greeted with the news that Donald Trump seems to have backed off his earlier support for the anti-vaccination movement. At various points, he had expressed support for widely debunked claims that vaccines could cause autism and had even proposed setting up a commission to ‘study’ the issue, which many people feared would provide a highly visible platform for the skeptics to spread their ideas.
The most prominent of the skeptics who had been supposedly tasked with heading the commission is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who as far as I know has no scientific credentials but is exploiting his political pedigree as the son of the former attorney general and nephew of the former president. But apparently Trump has been cool to the idea of the commission recently.
The son of former US attorney general Bobby Kennedy met Trump in New York during the presidential transition in January last year and announced that he had been asked to chair a commission to review vaccine safety.
Scientists warned that it would give credence to debunked theories, while a Trump spokeswoman denied any decision had been made.
Then, a year ago this week, Kennedy told reporters he had met “many times” with members of Trump’s transition team, “trading documents about what the commission would look like”. But little has been heard of the plan since then.
“I would say there’s zero progress,” Kennedy told the Guardian last week. “We were told President Trump wanted to meet directly with us. Not only did nothing happen, they’ve cut off all communication with people who care about this issue. The administration has decided to go in another direction.”
It is too much to hope that Trump has been persuaded by the science, since he has not bothered to even appoint a head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the person responsible for giving science advice to the president. Trump is a man who is not only ignorant but proudly flaunts his ignorance by claiming to be an expert on any topic that comes before him. The reason for his hesitation is likely that the drug companies have quietly weighed in in favor of the vaccines. Part of the anti-vaxxers argument is that vaccines are being promoted by the drug companies as a big money maker for them and that they are conspiring with scientists to hide the risks. The drug companies may have feared being targeted by the commission.
Kennedy blamed the president’s shift on high-level “corruption” tying the administration to the pharmaceutical industry, which he claims has historically blocked research into vaccine safety to protect its own interests.
“Much of what happens in this administration is obscure so there hasn’t been transparency,” he said.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he insisted that science is on his side. “The issue here is the exact same issue as climate change, which is the mainstream science indicates that there’s a serious problem with mercury and other metals in vaccinations, and it’s virtually unanimous in that regard, and then you have industry science which is challenging it, which is big science. I think in both cases President Trump is on the side of the industry and against science.”
Kennedy is an environmentalist and links Trump’s retreat on this issue to the way he is against clean water and air.
The environmental lawyer and activist, who is the nephew of the former president John F Kennedy, drew a comparison with the administration’s willingness to favour big business over clean air and water regulations. “A lot of what we’ve seen is analogous to what we’ve seen on the environmental landscape where the wolves have been put in charge of the henhouse, where industry people have been brought in to essentially dismantle public protections.”
But while it is undoubtedly true that Trump favors his own business interests and those of big corporations over everything else, on the issue of vaccinations that combination produced the right result, at least so far. Who knows if pressure brought by the anti-vaxxer community (whose members tend to be affluent) may change what we can laughingly refer to as his mind.