Today’s post announces the winner of the 2020 The Screamers Science Hype Award. Since this is the inaugural year for The Screamers, I’m just going to give out one main award: Overall Worst Science Hype.
Science Hype Award to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn
Remarkably, the winner of the overall The Screamers Award for Science Hype for 2020 is now former (as of today) FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.
When I came up with the idea for these awards a couple of years back and then launched them for 2020, I never would have imagined that the FDA Commissioner could be in the running, let alone win the award.
Hahn apparently let Trump negatively sway his public statements and behind-the-scenes actions about evolving COVID-19 treatments.
COVID convalescent plasma train wreck
What exactly did Hahn say that qualifies as such an egregious example of science hype?
The major misstep was that he falsely stated that convalescent plasma treatments could reduce COVID-19 deaths by 35%. Note that convalescent plasma is basically a blood product from those who have already had the disease and contains potentially useful antibodies.
You can see a video from Yahoo News summarizing what happened.
At the time of his epic mistake, there was little in the way of solid data to back up anything close to this claim.
“Several experts, including Dr Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, have expressed reservations about the robustness of studies so far. And speaking to the New York Times on Monday, one of the Mayo Clinic study’s main authors, Dr Arturo Casadevall, said he did not know where the 35% figure had come from.”
From the press conference, Hahn went on to say, “What that means is, 100 people who are sick with COVID19, 35 of them would have been saved.”
No, that’s absolutely wrong.
Hahn himself apologized on Twitter for his statements on convalescent plasma for COVID-19.
An important part of why I gave him the award is that I believe he hyped an unproven medical treatment under political pressure that he should have resisted and he did so in a dangerous way during a deadly pandemic.
And he did this as FDA Commissioner, which amplifies the harm greatly.
Hahn also was unable to stem the White House hydroxychloroquine hype and the FDA under Hahn was all over the place on hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 in a way that harmed the agency and probably the public.
I’m trying to imagine if Scott Gottlieb had remained Commissioner during the pandemic and how much better things might have turned out, but it’s hard to be sure how it would have unfolded given the unprecedented nature of COVID-19.
Could anyone have done better without being fired?
Apology, positive impact moving forward on vaccines
In part, the fact the FDA continued to function as well as it did during 2020 should be attributed greatly to unappointed, career officials such as CBER Director, Peter Marks.
You can read quite a lot more about the backstory on Hahn’s time as Commissioner here in a wild new Vanity Fair piece,
To be fair, Hahn did acknowledge his mistakes. He also did some things right and did far better on the vaccine issue, but overall I believe that his actions did some damage to the FDA and stirred confusion at important moments in the pandemic.
Looking ahead to The Screamers Awards for 2021
Is it wise to give a science hype award to an FDA Commissioner, even now a former Commissioner? Perhaps not, but it’s especially important to call out science hype from such a powerful person where their actions have such high potential for harm.
I’m planning in the future for The Screamers in 2021 (announced this December or the following January) and beyond to have additional types of categories of awards for science hype.
In 2020 there certainly were many people, health organizations, and media outlets who could have won various other kinds of science hype awards.
If you saw any particularly strong examples from 2020 let me know in the comments and keep me posted if you see extreme science hype now in 2021 too. Those just may be candidates for this year’s awards.