President-elect Donald J. Trump's transition team declined to confirm that vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., would head a vaccine safety commission in the new administration, but the move would be consistent with Trump's prior positions on vaccination and autism.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr, an outspoken critic of vaccines, announced yesterday that President-elect Donald J. Trump had asked him to chair a committee investigating vaccine safety and autism. The Trump transition team stated that no decision had been finalized, although the president-elect has previously indicated support for the anti-vaccine movement.
After leaving a meeting with Trump, Kennedy told reporters in Trump Tower that he had accepted the president-elect’s offer to lead a committee on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” “President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies, and he has questions about it,” Kennedy said.
Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed to CBS that the 2 spoke about “the issues pertaining to vaccines and immunizations,” but transition spokeswoman Hope Hicks later said in a statement that Trump “is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on autism," but "no decisions have been made at this time.”
Autism advocacy groups fired back after Kennedy’s announcement, warning of the dangers of anti-vaccine rhetoric.
“Creating a commission makes it look like scientists have not already studied this issue for many years, and it may lead people to think this is still an open question. It is not,” said Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, in a statement. “Withholding vaccines will do nothing to reduce the chance that a child is diagnosed with autism, but will absolutely increase the chance that a child could contract and die from a vaccine-preventable disease. Vaccines save lives, period.”
Kennedy, who has no scientific training, has a long and controversial history of stoking anti-vaccine skepticism. His crusade began in 2005 when he authored an exposé alleging a conspiracy to hide the link between autism and thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in vaccines; the piece was later retracted by the publisher, Salon, for being inaccurate. In 2015, he drew criticism for calling the epidemic of autism caused by immunizations “a holocaust” at a screening of an anti-vaccine documentary.
Although the Trump team refused to confirm the creation of a vaccine safety committee, it would be consistent with some of the president-elect's actions. In the summer of 2016, he met with discredited researcher Andrew Wakefield, whose medical license was revoked after he published the seminal study linking vaccines to autism, which has since been retracted. Wakefield told STAT news after the election that Trump had been “extremely interested, genuinely interested, and open-minded on this issue,” and expressed hope that having a vaccine skeptic in the White House could impact not just policy but cultural beliefs on vaccination.
In 2014, Trump tweeted about his own anti-vaccine beliefs:
Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2014
At a 2015 Republican primary debate, he clarified that he was in favor of vaccines, but advocated for “smaller doses over a longer period of time.”
Both the autism—thimerosal link and the idea that a delayed vaccine schedule could reduce the risk of autism have been repeatedly debunked by numerous studies. A comprehensive literature review by the Institutes of Medicine in 2013 found “no evidence of major safety concerns associated with adherence to the childhood immunization schedule,” instead confirming the strong association between following the schedule and reducing vaccine-preventable diseases.