National Institutes of Health officials backed away from publicizing promising federally funded research involving human fetal tissue cells early in the coronavirus pandemic, calling one study “a political landmine.”
The decision, revealed in public records obtained by BuzzFeed News through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, shows how top NIH officials under the Trump administration, hostile to such research due to its anti-abortion politics, handled promotion of the study.
The study — which involved mice “humanized” with fetal tissue cells — was published in the journal Cell Reports in April 2020. Ahead of publication, NIH officials said, “it will not help us to advertise this particular find,” according to a March 20, 2020, email from a publicist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana.
Studies like this are typically promoted with a news release, with the scientists being made available for interviews. Instead, the NIH seems to have deliberately avoided that kind of promotion for this study because of political risks.
Ideally, news about science should be shared with the public in an open and transparent way, and face honest debate, said University of Wisconsin science communications expert Dietram Scheufele. Faced with climate change, stem cells, and other research becoming politically charged and hyperpartisan in recent decades, however, federal research agencies have had to carefully weigh how they describe new research to avoid political backlash.
“The NIH story pushes this to the next level,” Scheufele said. “The partisan nature of US politics has gotten us to a point now where the question is no longer ‘how’ to talk about emerging science, but ‘if’ to talk to the public about emerging science. And that’s a bad place to be in for science and for society.”
NIH representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the emails from BuzzFeed News.
Funded in part by NIH, the Cell Reports study found that tamping down the early immune response to an infection in human lung cells led to a stronger overall response to illness — a surprising finding made just as SARS-CoV-2 was leading to a worldwide pandemic of deadly respiratory disease.
“Given the coronavirus epidemic, it has important information that could conceivably help those with impaired or aged immune systems,” said one of the study authors, the eminent biologist Irving Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, in a quote intended for a potential news release (which never materialized) about the result, contained in the emails.
However, the result came just after work by another study author, the NIH’s Kim Hasenkrug, had become the focus of a Washington Post report that the Trump administration’s 2019 ban on human fetal tissue research was blocking his lab’s research on coronavirus treatments. The lab’s specialized mice were transplanted with human fetal tissue that developed into lungs, the primary tissues destroyed by the then-new coronavirus. Although the infection in the study was from HIV, the authors suggested its findings might bolster treatments for Epstein-Barr virus, shingles, and hepatitis, as well as other diseases.
With the political pressure on after that story, and the Trump administration having recently announced a review board for fetal tissue grants, NIAID ultimately did not send a press release or tweet — two common ways to showcase research the agency funded — about the April 2020 study. Cell Reports tweeted the findings on April 20, 2020.
On the order of the news office at NIH headquarters, reporters' queries about the fetal tissue research were referred to a representative at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a political appointee who did not respond to this reporter’s queries at the time.
In the emails obtained through FOIA, two NIH officials discussed Hasenkrug saying he didn't want to talk to the press about the study. "Honestly, I wouldn't put him forward anyway," one NIH deputy director wrote. "Political landmine."
Hasenkrug didn't return a request for comment.
Federal agencies, congressional offices, and state and local governments vastly limit journalists from gaining independent insight into their work and the work they fund, said Kathryn Foxhall, vice chair of the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. They regularly ban contact between staff and reporters, while pushing out to the press and public the information they do decide is news.
"Suppression of press alerts for political reasons is an illustration of what unconscionable conflict of interest runs through it all," Foxhall said, after reviewing the NIH emails.
And while a journal did publish the fetal tissue study, she added, the NIH decision not to publicize it meant most medical professionals, who rely on national outlets or specialized medical outlets for news, didn’t hear about it.
Human fetal tissue research erupted into US politics in summer 2015, when anti-abortion activists released secretly recorded videos of themselves posing as a biomedical research firm looking to buy tissues from aborted fetuses donated to medical research in an advocacy campaign aimed against Planned Parenthood. They found no takers, and no investigation found any wrongdoing by the clinics. But the ensuing uproar figured in the killing of three people at a clinic in Colorado Springs later that year.
After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, his administration banned the use of fetal cells by federal researchers and instituted a review panel largely filled with abortion opponents for research involving them. Meeting with little notice, the panel last year nixed 13 of 14 already-approved NIH proposals.
All that was despite medical researchers for decades using cells taken from aborted human fetuses to create vaccines for everything from polio to measles, and to study ailments ranging from cancer to blindness. Some COVID-19 vaccines relied on fetal cells in their development, for example, drawing protests from some activists but leading the Vatican to OK their use for Catholics, due to the extreme dangers posed by the disease.
“The degree to which the sad, private act of obtaining an abortion occupies our national consciousness is simply bizarre,” obstetrician-gynecologist Nanette Santoro of the University of Colorado School of Medicine told BuzzFeed News by email, asked to comment on the NIH deciding to shy away from publicizing the Cell Reports study. As a reproductive scientist with over 35 years’ experience in studying human reproduction, she added, “the associations of anything reproductive for any purpose with abortion contaminates the topic to the point where funding in my field is shockingly low.”
“Most reasonable people would find this perplexing,” Santaro said. “But we do not live in reasonable times.”
In the Cell Reports study itself, Trump’s executive order banning government scientists from using human fetal tissue in research is noted. “Without a lifting of the ban, further experiments cannot go forward,” the study concludes.
“What’s scientifically possible has long pushed the boundaries of what societies think might be prudent, moral, or desirable. And the answers are inherently political,” said Scheufele, the University of Wisconsin expert. Those debates depend on the best available science driving whatever decisions are made, he added.
“If we let hyperpartisanship derail that, both science and society are screwed.”