Americans' trust in health agencies such as CDC and FDA, as well as in public health officials such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus task force coordinator, has eroded since April, according to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). To address the issue, FDA officials are taking new—and somewhat unusual—steps to reaffirm their commitment to science.
Public trust in health officials, agencies is waning
For its new poll published Thursday, KFF researchers surveyed 1,199 U.S. adults between Aug. 28 and Sept. 3.
The poll found that no major public official or institution received "a great deal" of trust from a majority of respondents to provide reliable information about the coronavirus.
The most trusted figure overall was Fauci, whom 37% said they trust "a great deal" and 31% said they trust "a fair amount." CDC, meanwhile, received "a great deal" of trust from 25% of respondents and "a fair amount" of trust from 42%, while Birx received "a great deal" of trust from 15% of respondents and "a fair amount" from 38%.
Among presidential candidates, Democratic nominee Joe Biden received "a great deal" of trust from 23% of respondents and "a fair amount" of trust from 28%. President Donald Trump received "a great deal" of trust from 21% of respondents and "a fair amount" of trust from 19%.
The researchers found that respondents' reported trust in CDC had dropped by 16 percentage points since April, when KFF did a similar survey. Republican respondents' reported trust in CDC dropped by 30 percentage points, compared with a 12-percentage-point decline among Democrats.
Trust in Fauci to provide reliable coronavirus information also dropped, falling by about 10 percentage points since April. Reported trust in Fauci dropped by 29 percentage points among Republican respondents, but increased by six percentage points among Democrats.
Around 40% of respondents said they believed both FDA and CDC were paying more attention to politics than they should, and 62% said they were concerned FDA would rush authorizing a coronavirus vaccine because of political pressure. When the researchers asked respondents whether they would receive a coronavirus vaccine if FDA approved one and it was available to them at no cost before November's presidential election, 42% of respondents said they would.
FDA officials pledge to adhere to science, transparency
In response to the public's dwindling trust, FDA officials in recent weeks have sought to address Americans' concerns by promising to share as much data on potential coronavirus vaccines as possible and ensure that officials will adhere to science when reviewing coronavirus vaccine candidates.
On Thursday, for instance, USA Today published an opinion piece written by eight senior officials at FDA, in which they wrote, "We are committed to making decisions guided by the best evidence. Our approach has been and must remain the gold standard that all can rely upon."
The officials wrote that "[m]aintaining the American public's trust in the FDA is vital," and that loss of that trust "will leave consumers and patients doubting our recommendations, less likely to enroll in clinical studies or to use FDA-regulated products when they should to maintain or improve their health." Further, they noted, "if the agency's credibility is lost because of real or perceived interference, people will not rely on the agency's safety warnings."
The officials acknowledged that FDA, "like other federal executive agencies, operates in a political environment," which is a reality FDA "must navigate adeptly while maintaining [its] independence to ensure the best possible outcomes for public health." However, they wrote, "The foundational and fundamental principles of the FDA … remain steadfast: to protect and promote the health and well-being of the American public, and to base our decisions in support of our public health mission on sound science."
The officials noted, "It is not possible for an agency with the impact and reach of the FDA to do its job without inviting controversy and disagreement, particularly when health or even life is at risk. Nevertheless, when protecting the public health is our beacon, and sound science is our guide to navigate controversial waters, we stay true to our mission as we fulfill our duty to the public."
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, who was not among the authors of the opinion piece, praised the officials who wrote the piece. Hahn in a tweet wrote that the officials "took the initiative to independently express their steadfast trust in the expertise and commitment of our organization." He added, "I wholeheartedly agree with them."
Brian Morgenstern, a spokesperson for the White House, in a statement issued Thursday said, "Trump, his administration, and the scientific community are dedicated to delivering a safe and effective vaccine as quickly as possible while ensuring that any approvals will be based on data and thorough medical and scientific reviews by career professionals and an independent review board" (Florko, STAT News, 9/10; Weiland, New York Times, 9/10; Cavazzoni et. al., USA Today, 9/10).