The impressively named President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology counts an august array of academics, engineers and scientists among its members. Even the council is impressed with its own stature — describing itself as “an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers.” PCAST is charged with advising to the president on matters of “science, technology, and innovation.” Not included among its enumerated advisory duties are medicine, virology or immunology.
Notwithstanding such limitation on its jurisdiction, PCAST earlier this month issued a “Report to the President on U.S. Preparations for 2009-H1N1 Influenza.” This well-publicized swine flu report is highly and unnecessarily alarmist.
These self-styled, appointed “leaders” are tasked with offering “advice” to the president, but they appear more interested in blowing their own horn and making public statements, than they are in offering the president sound but quiet counsel.
The 86-page swine flu report is prefaced with a letter to President Barack Obama from the three co-chairs. The transmittal letter pretentiously says the report “identifies the key decisions and actions to be taken” by the U.S. government in order to meet the challenges of “an epidemic that is still in progress.” The council is not simply offering the president advice to help his administration deal with the flu “epidemic;” it is telling him what “decisions” must be made and which “actions” have to be taken.
With such knowledgeable and powerful “advisers” telling the President how he must deal with a mounting flu epidemic, who needs such lesser persons as the secretary of Health and Human Services or the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both of whom are confirmed by the Senate?
Just how alarmist is the PCAST report? Headlines heralding its arrival say it all: “White House Warns of Massive Swine Flu Spread,” blares one; “Obama Advisers: Swine Flu Could Infect Nearly Half the U.S. Population,” shouts another. It is only if a person takes the time to actually open the report and read it, that it becomes clear the report is long on rhetoric but short on facts. In fact, it is by its own words nothing more than a “plausible scenario;” but that fact failed to make it into the headlines.
What is this “plausible scenario” to which PCAST alerts us? The landscape described is quite dire — up to one-half the entire U.S. population falling victim to H1N1 symptoms this coming winter; nearly two million people requiring hospitalization; and perhaps 90,000 deaths. Left unsaid is that any number of other contingencies could just as easily constitute “plausible scenarios.”
The CDC’s new director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, apparently was little impressed with the PCAST work product. He noted that the dreadful scenario it laid out was in reality no more likely than a much milder flu season. The credibility of the flu report was weakened further when one of its own members, Marc Lipsitch of Harvard, cautioned that it presented nothing more than a “possibility,” and was not a “prediction.”
Of course, as Frieden implied, it is just as likely a possibility that nowhere near those numbers of Americans will fall prey to the swine flu. But reporting that possibility would generate no spectacular headlines.
The PCAST report compounds its irresponsibility by recommending that because of the urgency of the scenario it presents, the government should allow vaccines to be given to those most at risk, even before the full clinical trials for the vaccine have been completed.
Rather than embracing this inflammatory and irresponsible report, the administration should disavow it. But it won’t. After all, headlines of dire predictions make for enhanced appropriations and a more frightened population — one that is much easier to control.