Congress Corrects the Record on CDC Director Walensky’s False Claim about Masks
Undisclosed conflicts of interest on COVID policy dog Cochrane’s Board
5 minute read
During a congressional hearing last month, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky faced inquiries from appropriators about her agency’s work, and some very specific questions about how she handled the pandemic. In one exchange, Congressman Andrew Clyde (Rep-GA) asked Walensksy if Americans should still wear masks, and Walensky wrongly stated that Cochrane had retracted a review that found no evidence masks stop virus transmission.
Walensky’s false statement built off a prior false statement by social media influencer and New York Times’ columnist Zeynep Tufekci, who claimed the Cochrane review on masks had been “corrected.” Cochrane has not issued a correction, nor has Cochrane retracted the review. Cochrane authors have sent emails to the New York Times pointing out misleading statements and falsehoods in Tufekci’s column, but the Times has failed correct Tufekci’s errors.
However, a congressional staffer has affirmed by email that Congress will correct the record on Walensky’s false statement made before the committee, to ensure trust in public health.
“If you wish for me to make the corrections to the record public at this time I am happy to do so,” a congressional staffer wrote to Cochrane authors Tom Jefferson, a lecturer at Oxford, and John Conly, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Calgary. “As I mentioned I will send your correction to every member of our subcommittee.”
Walensky made the false statement about an hour and 20 minutes into her testimony to justify the CDC’s budget. Here's that exchange:
Congressman Clyde: A recent review by the Cochrane Collaboration suggests that the common face masks worn by the public probably make little or no difference. Do you believe Americans should still be wearing face masks?
Director Walensky: Can I just comment for a minute on that Cochrane review, known as the gold standard? And I think it’s notable that the editor in chief of the Cochrane actually said that the summary of that review was … she retracted the summary of that review and said it was an inaccurate summary.
“If you like, I can send your original, unedited email to Dr Walensky’s chief of staff to ensure that she sees it,” the congressional staffer wrote. “We want the record to reflect the accurate facts for posterity and take this responsibility very seriously as the lack of trust in public health officials is becoming an enormous problem for many reasons.”
The pushback to misleading claims about Cochrane’s review on masks comes as researchers continue making false statements that masks work to prevent virus transmission. Two latest examples attacking Cochrane appeared in essays at Scientific American and another at STAT that made the awkward claim that randomized controlled trials should not be used.
Meanwhile, new information points to troubles inside Cochrane which has been dogged by problems since they issued a March statement undermining their own review on masks. One of the people behind that statement is Cochrane board member Catherine Marshall, who has failed to disclose her COVID consulting gigs with the New Zealand government.
In her Cochrane conflict of interest declaration, Catherine Marshall reports consulting fees from New Zealand government agencies for advice on the development and implementation of guidelines and the design and delivery of primary care services. Since she helped put out a statement undermining Cochrane’s review on masks, it’s good to see she doesn’t have any consulting gigs that involve COVID policy, such as masking. New Zealand ignored Cochrane’s findings and implemented a stringent mask policy that was revoked in September.
But a freedom of information request filed with the New Zealand government finds that Marshall did in fact have consulting gigs on COVID policy with the New Zealand government for “Senior Consultant – COVID-19” and “Principal Advisor COVID-19 Strategic Operations.”
To understand this matter, I sent a series of questions to Catherine Marshall and other executives at Cochrane:
1) What was your advice to the NZ government on masks?
2) Did your advice to the NZ government on masks run counter to Cochrane's own findings on masks?
3) Did you help on that statement by Cochrane that undermined Cochrane's own review on physical interventions.
4) Did your advice and/or contract to the NZ government on COVID play into Cochrane's release of a statement undermining Cochrane's own review on physical interventions? Why or why not?
Neither Catherine Marshall nor Cochrane replied.
On a final note, the congressional staffer correcting Walensky’s false statement added this brief aside in her email back to Jefferson and Conly.
I don’t know if you know (or know of) Dr. Vinay Prasad out of UCSF. I follow his podcast “Sensible Medicine” and that is where I first learned of your Cochrane review and began to understand the gold standard these reviews are. When Dr Walensky made that statement in the hearing, I was shocked as that had not been mentioned in the podcasts. And I suppose now I know why.
You can follow Vinay Prasad on Substack, here.
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