Access to Public Health Information in the Age of COVID-19

We’ve always needed free flowing public health information, but the coronavirus pandemic has made that need more urgent.

Amy Kapczynski
July 22, 2020

This is part of a Columbia News series, titled Lessons Learned, which invites the Columbia community to reflect on the pandemic and the insights they have gained from their COVID-19 experience. These essays speak to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have witnessed during this period of unprecedented challenge, as well as some of the silver linings in the actions we have had to take by necessity.

As the nation continues to grapple with the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about the public’s access to the data and information it needs to evaluate critical health and policy decisions have become increasingly urgent.

The stakes couldn’t be higher—the staggering demand for treatments and vaccines, the hundreds of billions of dollars on the line, and the rush to a cure, all mean that we need access to that data more than ever. Data can help show us whether regulators are doing their jobs too. This is critically important, especially because President Trump has been promoting unproved cures, and because of the reports of retaliation against officials inside the administration who have insisted on high standards and refused to accommodate politically motivated interference with funding and study design.

The first thing we need is solidly designed studies for candidate treatments and vaccines—that itself isn’t assured, and companies are doing really crazy things, like throwing a whole handful of drugs at patients with study designs that make it impossible to sort out the true effects of the drugs. The public needs to know that we need to wait for randomized controlled trial results before we know what works. And we need national and international coordination to ensure that the most important candidates are being tested in some coordinated fashion, and that the design of the tests can give us answers.

We should be concerned about reports that employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention need to get approval before speaking publicly about COVID-19 because it hinders the flow of accurate information to the public. This administration—and particularly Trump himself—have repeatedly lied or misled the public about everything from how serious this infection is, to how many tests we have. Inside of these federal agencies there are many good scientists, people whose job it is to collate and publish information and data that the public desperately needs. We cannot shape our response without good data and information, and in a pandemic that means listening to scientists, and not politicians, about questions of science.

Amy Kapczynski is a senior visiting research scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

This piece has been adapted from an interview with the Knight First Amendment Institute's Katy Glenn Bass.