In 1942, the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas was established to reduce the impact of malaria and other vector-borne diseases, such as typhus and West Nile virus, in the southeastern U.S. during World War II. In 1946 this agency was transformed to the Communicable Disease Center (CDC), as a part of the U.S. Public Health Service.1
In the following years the CDC oversaw the reduction of malaria throughout the U.S., which was considered eliminated from the U.S. by 1951. From its humble beginnings, having fewer than 400 employees, the agency changed its name to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, grew to over 14,000 employees in 54 countries and developed its mission to:2
“[C]ollaborate to create the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to protect their health — through health promotion, prevention of disease, injury and disability, and preparedness for new health threats.”
According to the CDC itself,3 it is one of the major operating components of the Department of Health and Human Services, and works 24/7 to protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S.
However, history has demonstrated this top health agency actually operates in much the same way as large for-profit organizations, working hard to protect its secrets and bury its mistakes.
CDC Has History of Struggling to Maintain Safety of Pathogens
Called the country’s “flagship public health agency” by The Atlantic,4 the organization is charged with protecting Americans against pathogens and bioterrorism. However, their track record reveals a race littered with corruption and inadequate methods of tracking microorganisms, the focus of their function.
In 2014, six glass vials of smallpox virus were found in a storeroom in a government laboratory.5 It was the second time in one month mishandling of potential deadly infectious agents was exposed. The sealed vials, found in a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lab at the National Institutes of Health, were labeled “variola,” another name for smallpox.
The only other known samples of smallpox were being held in high-security labs at the CDC in Atlanta and in Russia. The FDA then revealed6 the six vials of smallpox were part of a larger group of infectious agents and other biological materials, 327 vials in all, labeled with diseases such as influenza, Q fever and dengue.
The Mistake Was Discovered Accidentally
One month before this shocking discovery, the CDC7 found as many as 75 of its scientists had been exposed to live anthrax. The live pathogen had been sent from another, higher-security facility, which failed to follow biosafety protocols. The anthrax sample was supposed to have been inactivated prior to transfer, but for a variety of reasons it wasn’t dead on arrival. According to one report:8
“The exposure incident is unprecedented in the history of American research on bioweapons and other deadly pathogens, prompting alarm among researchers who have already warned about the consequences of lax laboratory oversight globally. Scientists in and out of the CDC say the process of handling such bacteria and viruses must be improved.”
Although none of the scientists displayed symptoms, they were treated prophylactically. The CDC reported the scientists were not wearing protective gear as the bacteria were supposed to have been deactivated. Making matters worse, the error was discovered by sheer chance. As reported by The New York Times:9
“The anthrax episode took place … in the agency’s bioterrorism rapid response lab as part of testing a new mass spectrometry method … The new C.D.C. report found several errors: A scientist used a dangerous anthrax strain when a safer one would have sufficed, had not read relevant studies and used an unapproved chemical killing method.
The error was discovered by accident. The door to an autoclave that would have sterilized samples taken for safety tests was stuck, so they were left in an incubator for days longer than normal. Only then did a lab technician notice that bacteria believed to be dead were growing.
Later tests done at the C.D.C. and at a Michigan State Health Department lab as part of the investigation confirmed that the chemical method would have killed any live, growing anthrax in the samples … but might not have killed all spores, which are surrounded by a hard shell and can also be lethal.”
Following these back-to-back mishandlings,10 federal officials announced they would temporarily close flu and anthrax laboratories at the CDC in Atlanta, and would halt shipments of all infectious agents from the highest security labs.
The New York Times11 also reported another accident in which the CDC inadvertently contaminated a benign flu sample with the more dangerous H5N1 bird flu strain. At the time of these incidents, Dr. Tom Frieden, then director of the CDC, stated:12
“These events revealed totally unacceptable behavior. They should never have happened. I’m upset, I’m angry, I’ve lost sleep over this, and I’m working on it until the issue is resolved.”
Yet following the anthrax mistake, Frieden appears to have attempted to justify the error saying,13 “when you work with it day in and day out, you can get a little careless. The culture of safety needs to improve at some CDC laboratories.”
Frieden Admitted These Are Not Isolated Mistakes
Frieden suggested the accidents had implications for other laboratories, including those at universities, and argued for the reduction of the number of labs handling dangerous agents. On one side, scientists doing the most controversial work to make pathogens more lethal contend this type of research helps predict mutations that may arise in nature.
But other scientists have expressed concerns that creating super strains is dangerous, as lab accidents are more common than acknowledged. Peter Hale, founder of The Foundation for Vaccine Research, commented,14 “You can have all the safety procedures in the world, but you can’t provide for human error.”
Days later, answering questions from members of Congress,15 Frieden admitted these were not isolated mistakes, but rather part of a larger issue of unsafe practices. He admitted to addressing other blunders but missing the bigger picture.
A memo by the Congressional subcommittee also detailed how the labs were not properly secured when the anthrax mistake was discovered, and no one knew who was in charge of the decontamination. Once the accident was recognized, the number of bacteria and location were not recorded.
Centralized Reporting for Incidents at the CDC Not Instituted Until 2015
Only after these mistakes came to light was a comprehensive policy for centralized reporting instituted at the CDC.16 A 503-page lab incident report from the CDC released to USA Today under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) contained a number of redacted pages.
Within the document, the CDC cited a 2002 bioterrorism law as the reason for removing information, including the types of pathogens and descriptions of what happened. Several hearings have been held since the problems revealed in 2014 to examine serious safety lapses at the CDC and other federal labs.17
Critics of the system find the ongoing revelations of lab incidents at the CDC demonstrate the need to reassess if the current regulatory system is functional. Although not instituted until 2015, the Government Accountability Office repeatedly recommended improving oversight, starting in 2009.18
They especially wanted to establish a single entity to oversee high security labs working with the most dangerous pathogens. While much of the work is important to public health and national security, former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, who was a member of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, believes the research must be done safely and with a level of transparency.19
Past Acts of the CDC Demonstrate Lack of Trustworthiness
In January 2018, Politico20 revealed the head of the CDC appointed by the Trump administration, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, had purchased shares in a tobacco company one month after taking office. The purchase was reportedly one of 12 new investments she made after taking over the agency.
Subsequently, she came under Congressional scrutiny for her failure to timely divest older investments that officials believed posed conflicts of interest. Critics pointed out her trading behavior ran contrary to ethical norms for public health officials, and would be legally problematic if she didn’t recuse herself from activities that may affect her investments.21
Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer, described the move as “tone- deaf,”22 given the CDC’s role in antismoking efforts. In addition to her investments in tobacco companies, Politico23 revealed she also traded in drug and food companies.
For example, Fitzgerald purchased stock in Merck, which had been working on developing an Ebola vaccine and an HIV vaccine,24 and Bayer, which has in the past partnered with the CDC Foundation to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.
Fitzgerald’s resignation quickly followed. In the announcement, Health and Human Services cited25 “complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete her duties,” but declined to issue a response to questions regarding Fitzgerald’s investments, including whether she had approved transactions, activities and decisions related to her holdings.
Hospitals and CDC Collaborate to Keep You in the Dark
In addition to mistakes made in CDC laboratories, the agency also has a history of secrecy affecting immediate health care. In the fight against antibiotic-resistant infections, Candida auris is an example of an intractable threat now faced by hospitals around the world.
The CDC calls this26 “an emerging fungus that presents as a serious global health threat.” But despite their willingness to admit the particularly virulent and dangerous nature of the fungus, they have collaborated with U.S. hospitals to maintain confidentiality when there’s an outbreak.
It was two years after an outbreak of a drug-resistant pathogen, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, at a rural hospital in Kentucky before the CDC reported it.27 Even then, the hospital remained unnamed. This bacterial infection has been dubbed the “nightmare” bacteria, as it is resistant to most antibiotics and spreads easily from person to person.28
The collaboration between the CDC and state governments to hide outbreaks is promoted as a way to avoid frightening patients. However, knowledge of an outbreak in a hospital is important when you are making decisions about nonurgent matters, such as an elective surgery.
According to The New York Times,29,30 outbreaks were hidden even when disclosure could have saved lives. For instance, at a Seattle Hospital, 18 people died after being infected with a drug-resistant organism from a contaminated medical scope, but the outbreak was not disclosed at the time.31
Coca-Cola Works to Influence Government Policy Using Its Own Manipulated Research
In addition to the CDC’s mishandling of pathogens, links to drug companies and its hiding of antibiotic-resistant outbreaks, the agency also has a history of collaborating with junk food companies hell-bent on undermining public health.
For instance, there’s evidence The Coca-Cola Company sought to influence the CDC’s obesity recommendations, encouraging the agency to focus its attention on prompting exercise rather than telling people to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.
Conveniently, Coca-Cola’s research agreements with universities give the company rights over study data, disclosure of results and the power to terminate studies for any reason,32,33 thereby giving Coke the ability to bury unwanted findings while publishing studies that support its bogus stance on nutrition and health.
Emails reveal Coca-Cola was actively lobbying the CDC “to advance corporate objectives rather than health, including to influence the World Health Organization,” U.S. Right to Know reports.34 According to CNN, at least one visit was arranged for CDC staff to visit Coca-Cola headquarters.35 Coca-Cola was also caught influencing the Chinese government’s policy on how to fight obesity.36
Documents featuring correspondence between Coca-Cola executives and the CDC can be found in the USCF Food Industry Documents online archive.37,38 A paper39,40,41,42 detailing the connections between Coke and the CDC based on the email cache was published in The Milbank Quarterly in January 2019. In a press release announcing the publication of the paper, USRTK said:43
“Coca-Cola’s contact with the CDC shows the company’s interest in gaining access to CDC employees, to lobby policymakers, and to frame the obesity debate by shifting attention and blame away from sugar-sweetened beverages …
‘It is not the proper role of the CDC to abet companies that manufacture harmful products,’ said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. ‘Congress should investigate whether Coca-Cola and other companies that harm public health are unethically influencing the CDC, and subverting its efforts to protect the health of all Americans.'”
CDC Official Helped Coke Influence World Health Organization
In March 2015, WHO published a new sugar guideline that specifically targeted sugary beverages, calling them out as a primary cause for childhood obesity around the world, especially in developing nations, where the soda industry is now aggressively expanding its reach.
WHO’s recommendation to limit soda consumption was a huge blow to an already beleaguered soda industry, struggling to maintain a declining market share amid mounting evidence identifying sweetened drinks as a primary contributor to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.
Email correspondence between Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola scientific and regulatory affairs leader and the founder of the food industry-funded group International Life Sciences Institute, and Barbara Bowman, Ph.D., then-director of the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, revealed Bowman repeatedly tried to help Malaspina get an audience with WHO officials, with the aim to talk them into relaxing the sugar limits.44,45
Bowman’s job was to prevent obesity and related health problems, and she left the agency at the end of June 2016, just two days after the initial reports about her cozy relationship with Coke were made public,46 which suggests she was well aware of how inappropriate her behavior was. As noted in Milbank Quarterly:47
“Our findings provide a rare example of the ways in which corporate interests attempt to influence public health practitioners ‘in their own words,’ and they demonstrate a need for clearer policies on avoiding partnerships with manufacturers of harmful products.”