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. The NIH seems to have deliberately avoided this kind of promotion due to 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. Federal research agencies have had to be careful about how they describe new research in order to avoid political backlash, given the political nature of stem cells and climate change research.
“The NIH story pushes this to the next level,” Scheufele said. “The partisan nature US politics has brought us to a place where the question is not ‘how’ to discuss emerging science but ‘if’ we should talk to the public about it. That’s a bad place to be in for science and society.” 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 from NIH, Cell Reports found that reducing the immune response to infection in human lung cells leads to a stronger overall response. This surprising finding was made at a time when SARS-CoV-2 was causing a global pandemic of deadly respiratory diseases.
“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 then transplanted with human embryonic tissue, which developed into lungs. This was the primary tissue that was destroyed by the new coronavirus. Although the study’s infection was HIV-related, the authors suggested that its findings could help with other diseases such as Epstein-Barr virus, Shingles, and Hepatitis.
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.
Reporters’ questions about fetal tissue research were referred by the news office at NIH headquarters to a representative at Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This political appointee did not respond to the reporter’s queries at that 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. One deputy director of the NIH wrote, “Honestly, I wouldn’t put him forward anyway.” “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 ban staff from contacting reporters and push out to the press and the public any information they deem newsworthy.
“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. After reviewing the NIH emails, Foxhall stated that the NIH had decided not to publish the fetal tissue research. This meant that most medical professionals, who rely heavily on national media outlets or specialized medical outlets, didn’t know 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 did not find any takers and no investigation revealed any wrongdoing at 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 don’t live in reasonable times
In the Cell Reports study, Trump’s executive ban on government scientists using human fetal tissue for research is noted. The study concludes that “without a lifting the ban, further experiments can’t go forward.”
“What’s scientifically possible has long pushed the boundaries of what societies think might be prudent, moral, or desirable. Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin expert, said that the answers are inherently politically. He said that those debates are dependent on the best science to drive any decisions made.
“If science and society are hampered by hyperpartisanship, both science & society will be screwed.”