Donald Trump asked Robert Kennedy Jr., a proponent of a widely discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, to chair a new commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity, according to Kennedy.
The stunning move would contradict established science, medicine and the government’s position on the issue. It comes after Trump – who has long been critical of vaccines – met at Trump Tower with Kennedy, who has spearheaded efforts to roll back child vaccination laws.
Trump transition officials did not respond to requests for comment on the commission.
Speaking to reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, on Tuesday, Kennedy said that Trump called him to request the meeting, and he accepted the position on the new commission. It is unclear exactly what role the commission would play.
“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies, and he has questions about it,” Kennedy said. “His opinion doesn’t matter, but the science does matter, and we ought to be reading the science, and we ought to be debating the science.”
“And that everybody ought to be able to be assured that the vaccines that we have – he’s very pro-vaccine, as am I – but they’re as safe as they possibly can be,” he added.
The announcement was met with alarm from health professionals who say that putting a proponent of a conspiracy theory in a position of authority on this issue is dangerous.
“That’s very frightening, it’s difficult to imagine anyone less qualified to serve on a commission for vaccine science,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a nonprofit that works to control, treat and eliminate vaccine-preventable and neglected tropical diseases.
“The science is clear: massive evidence showing no link between vaccines and autism, and as both a scientist who develops vaccines for poverty related neglected diseases and the father of an adult daughter with autism, there’s not even any plausibility for a link,” Hotez continued. “Autism is a genetic condition.”
“Our nation’s public health will suffer if this nascent neo-antivaxxer movement is not stopped immediately,” he added.
Earlier, the meeting had been announced by a spokesman for the Trump transition team, Sean Spicer, who said that the two would discuss vaccines at Trump Tower.
Trump notably expressed support for the theory at a Republican presidential debate in 2015.
“You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump . . .” he said of vaccinating children. “We had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, 2 years old, a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
The comments were widely denounced by medical professionals who say that there is no evidence that vaccines lead to autism. In fact, the study that popularized the idea has been retracted and discredited as fraudulent. Multiple high-quality studies have found no link between vaccines and autism.
But Trump’s views date back several years.
In tweets as early as 2012, Trump expressed skepticism about vaccines, and in 2014 said that “doctors lied” about vaccines.
In other tweets, Trump has referred to vaccines as the cause of “doctor-inflicted autism.”
“Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism,” Trump said in an August 2012 tweet.
At the presidential debate in 2015, he claimed that his children had been vaccinated in small doses.
“I am totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump said. “Because you take a baby in, and I’ve seen it. I’ve had my children taken care of over a long period of time, over a two or three year period of time.”
But those statements were denounced as “false” by the American Academy of Pediatrics, who released a strongly worded condemnation following the Republican debate.
“Claims that vaccines are linked to autism, or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule, have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature,” said Karen Remley, executive director of AAP. “It is dangerous to public health to suggest otherwise.”
“There is no ‘alternative’ immunization schedule. Delaying vaccines only leaves a child at risk of disease for a longer period of time; it does not make vaccinating safer. Vaccines work, plain and simple,” she added.
Kennedy has been a notable proponent of nonmedical exemptions for parents who seek to prevent their children from being vaccinated, which is mandatory in most states.
He has argued that mercury-based additives in vaccines explain the link to autism. And he has alleged that government scientists, journalists and pharmaceutical companies have colluded to hide the truth from the public.
“They get the shot. That night they have a fever of 103. They go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone,” Kennedy said at the premiere of an anti-vaccination film screening in California in 2015. “This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.
Leonard Bernstein and Mark Berman contributed to this report.
Here are some of the most common arguments for and against vaccination.
Speaking to members of the media, Robert Kennedy Jr. said he plans to chair a commission on vaccine safety as part of President-elect Trump’s administration, on Jan. 10 at Trump Tower in New York.