Donald Trump moved to question one of the signature medical accomplishments of the 20th century Tuesday, when a leading critic of vaccines claimed that Trump appointed him to chair a commission on vaccine safety.
"President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told the pool reporter at Trump Tower after meeting Trump Tuesday, adding the president-elect had personally asked him to chair the commission. "Everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have — he's very pro-vaccine, as am I — but they're as safe as they possibly can be."
Trump's team responded late Tuesday evening, saying they were considering forming a committee on autism but "no decisions have been made at this time."
"The President-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas," they wrote, in a statement obtained by the New York Times. "The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a committee on Autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time. The President-elect looks forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of Autism with many groups and individuals."
Kennedy is a longtime environmental activist and radio host, as well as the son of the late attorney general and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. He gained notoriety after a 2014 book called Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak, in which he argued that the mercury-containing compound, used as a preservative in flu vaccines, was linked to autism.
"There is no link between vaccines and autism," the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) clearly states, echoing findings about the lack of a connection between vaccines and autism made repeatedly by major scientific and medical organizations worldwide.
"The science has already spoken on this issue," Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told BuzzFeed News. "There are seventeen studies showing that the MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism. There are seven studies showing that thimerosal at the level contained in vaccines doesn't cause autism."
"Here's a man who knows nothing about vaccines, nor about vaccine safety. Why would he be the one leading a commission on vaccine safety? That certainly won't serve the American public," Offit said.
Thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in 1999 out of concern over a paper published by British physician Andrew Wakefield, who first argued for a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. After numerous investigations, Wakefield's paper was called "fraudulent" and was retracted. His conduct was called "dishonest" and "misleading," and he was disbarred.
Autism rates have steadily increased since 1999, and now 1 in 45 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which the CDC has ascribed to changes in survey methods that put the diagnosis ahead of other developmental disorders.
Nevertheless, Kennedy has accused government scientists of being "involved in a massive fraud," manipulating studies to demonstrate the safety of the compound. And he has claimed that an "insatiable pharmaceutical industry" is pushing them to do so in pursuit of boosting revenues from vaccines.
In 2005, Kennedy wrote an article for Rolling Stone and Salon alleging that the federal government was covering up the danger of vaccines. After making a series of corrections about inaccuracies, Salon finally retracted the piece in 2011.
Trump too has publicly argued for the link between vaccines and autism. "Just the other day, 2 years old, 2 and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic,” Trump said in a September 2015 Republican primary debate.
In August, the president-elect also met with Wakefield. He said he gave Trump a copy of his 2015 anti-vaccine documentary, Vaxxed, which the president-elect promised to watch.
Azeen Ghorayshi is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Her PGP Fingerprint is 9739 9DAE 607E A66A 3683 AC20 E34B D2A0 8899 74C4
Contact Azeen Ghorayshi at Azeen.Ghorayshi@buzzfeed.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.