Something Awful Seems to Have Happened to the CDC

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on August 29, 2020.


For most of my career, I have revered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I believed it had the best scientists in the world and that we could, and should, believe everything they said.

The CDC Prioritizes Politics Over Science

Not anymore. Unfortunately, the CDC has devolved into a partisan mouthpiece for politicians and individuals with agendas not supported by science.

The Academy Award-winning documentary Under Our Skin first showed me how politics influence decisions at the CDC. The film illustrates how chronic Lyme disease (CLD) can cause a great deal of suffering, including chronic pain and fatigue. But the medical community has been unwilling to respond appropriately because the government has determined that CLD is a “controversial” diagnosis. Patients’ pain is increased because the government refuses to validate their disease. The ongoing “Lyme wars” still make it difficult for patients to get post-Lyme disease testing and treatment.

Contagion is a theatrical movie about a pandemic that shows the CDC making decisions based on the political aspirations of key CDC officers. This fictional story about a pandemic and the power-seeking nature of CDC officials was unfortunately prescient.

The CDC Has Done Better

We have seen the tremendous work the CDC can do worldwide. The Ebola virus was contained, and potentially millions of lives were saved, because of the stellar work of enormously talented, dedicated CDC scientists.

The CDC activated its Emergency Response Center to protect the United States and its territories from the threat of the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects and Guillain-Barré Syndrome. My childbearing-age daughter cancelled trips to areas that the CDC warned posed a high risk.

It conducted more than 160,000 Zika virus tests, created registries to track pregnant women who were known to be infected with the virus, and provided $251 million in grants to state, local, and territorial health departments. Their ongoing efforts to minimize the damage from Zika demonstrates the exemplary work the CDC can perform.

The CDC’s Politicization Is Not Partisan

The politicizing of the CDC is nothing new. During the Obama administration, the CDC became a tool of anti-opioid zealots. Republican Congressman Harold (Hal) Rogers of Kentucky is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. You may have heard his name recently, because he determined the amount of the CDC’s emergency funding for the coronavirus. However, he’s not a newcomer to politics. President Obama joined Congressman Rogers at the National RX Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in 2016 to support increased funding to address prescription drug abuse. That action ignored the larger problem of illicit drug abuse, and the fact that the opioid crisis has been mischaracterized as a prescription drug problem.

The CDC Harms Millions of Americans With Its Opioid-Prescribing Guidelines

When Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) was unable to get all of what they demanded from the FDA through a citizen petition, they turned to the CDC, where they found political allies. This led to the now infamous CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.

As we all know, these guidelines have caused enormous harm to millions of Americans. The American Medical Association (AMA) implored the CDC to significantly change the guidelines “to protect patients with pain from the ongoing unintended consequences and misapplication of the guidance.” Even lead author Dr. Deborah Dowell and her colleagues have since backpedaled, saying the guidelines have been misapplied to withhold medication from patients who need it.

Yet the harm had already been committed and continues. Alarmingly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) interprets the guidelines as mandates, warning and potentially punishing doctors who do not follow the guidelines. Several states have blindly adopted the guidelines in a naïve attempt to address the rising number of drug overdose deaths, either not understanding or ignoring the fact that most overdoses are due to illicit, rather than prescription, drugs.

CDC Vacillates and Backpedals

Now we see the CDC yo-yoing with their recommendations regarding COVID-19. Initially, the CDC said that masks were not necessary except for those who were sick or taking care of someone who was sick. Now they recommend that everyone wear a mask—but the current administration wants to leave that decision up to the individual, so they have not issued a federal mandate. This is contrary to the advice of most experts.

The CDC has stated that testing for COVID-19 is important. But when the current administration apparently pressured the CDC to change their position and recommend that asymptomatic people who were exposed to the virus not get tested, they did so. They allowed politics to (no pun intended) trump science. Director Robert R. Redfeld has now reversed his position and said COVID-19 testing is important for those who have been exposed to the virus, even if they are asymptomatic.

I agree with Dr. Leana S. Wen, a well-recognized authority on public health, who wrote in the Washington Post, “I worry that this CDC change is part of a larger pattern of diluting recommendations when the federal government can’t do its job properly.” Perhaps we all should worry.

What are we to believe? I, for one, can no longer believe what the CDC says unless it is verified by non-partisan scientific bodies. This is a sad time. Our health is being played with as if it were a game. I feel like a commoner in Game of Thrones, as the kings fight for power and ignore their people.

We, the commoners, should insist that the CDC become an independent agency without a political appointee, so it would be unassailable by politicians who are more interested in controlling messages than diseases.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book The Painful Truth, and co-producer of the documentary It Hurts Until You Die. Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences.

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.




  1. Michelle Caccamisi on August 30, 2020 at 2:40 am

    Yes!!!! Exactly!!!! TRUTH!!! How in the world will they ever get their credibility back?

  2. Holly on August 30, 2020 at 2:45 am

    There is so much going on in secrecy it’s unreal! It’s all about money and power! God help this country!

  3. Teresa Smith on August 30, 2020 at 7:59 am

    The corrupt govt needs removed from the Dr./Pt. relationship – PERIOD!!

  4. Jacqueline Schneider on August 30, 2020 at 11:19 am

    Thank you Dr. Webster for your continued support of legitimate, responsible pain patients and the Drs. who treat them!

  5. Harry Cannon on August 30, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    Remember, this is the same CDC that once said Marijuana caused Cancer. They change their tune about Covid 19 weekly. Wear a mask, don’t wear that mask, lying about the number of cases, deaths.
    They have misled us through this whole pandemic.

    Then there’s the unconstitutional violation of doctor/patient confidentiality. The CDC and the DEA are inexcusable in their totalitarian actions.

  6. Julie on August 30, 2020 at 8:53 pm

    I stopped believing in Govt Health information when I was given a poisonous drug in my 20s & later found out that everyone knows it’s a bad drug, yet it’s still being prescribed for a host of new conditions. It’s all about the $$$. Very Sad.

  7. Alice on August 31, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    Great information! Scary times for all of us!

  8. Teresa Cotrone on August 31, 2020 at 10:44 pm

    Are death and DemiseAre on the backs of the CDC so much pain and Destruction the government has rained down on the Pain community and their abuse to our doctors where they put the fear of god on our doctors if they do treat our chronic Unforgiving pain Not to mention our port veterans they have Totally stopped their much needed pain Medication As well And many suicides because patients can’t live with this horrible pain The torture must end

  9. Suzi on September 1, 2020 at 1:44 am

    And the downstream effect of these corrupt role models have resulted in a dismantling of common decency and respecting others. A 20-something-year-old girl sat beside me on a flight refusing to wear her mask and told me when I asked that she was exercising her rights as an American citizen. As I began to tune out, she then told me I was a sheep, among other very nasty comments about other sheepish ethnic people… My heart went heavy today, and again, looking at this state of affairs. Sending my love… out there.

  10. Janie R. Anderson on September 1, 2020 at 3:25 am

    i dont trust the cdc they have badly damaged themselves 4 yrs ago they took my meds away in the 4 yrs since I have suffered i am now at the end of my life chronic untreated pain kills as certainly as a cancer I am a shell of my former self I cry 24-7 can’t keep food done anymore I am so nauseated and throwing up all the time lost 60 lbs constant headache I have been destroyed by this BS the fact that everyone at Kaiser Perm seems to think my suffering and impending death is not important for don’t u know I m just a lousy drug addict according to Kaiser even tho I have a 43 yrs history of severe unrelenting pain and used for all this time with never an issue of any kind methadone was for me a lifesaver it allowed me to lower my pain enough for me to keep living my life I am now bedridden a shell of my former self ask anyone if they care they don’t it amazes me that this gov’t sanctioned torture and genocide yet no mention of this horror by anyone no attornies no newspeople no willing to help me save my life I am at the end of my string my rope went up in flames years ago I will b gone soon and red just reported some folks r out to really get us so much ignorance

  11. Valorie Hawk on September 2, 2020 at 1:40 am

    Janie R. Anderson – what state are you in? Thank you, Dr. Webster, for yet another spot on article. I’ve been wondering if the chaos of covid and the CDC may be of benefit to the pain community? Now that the general public is seeing politics play out in front of them and that the CDC can be swayed by politics, it might make our situation more ‘believable’? It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that so many more people have needlessly suffered and died, because of the CDC isn’t doing it’s job.
    Valorie Hawk, Founder, C50/Coalition of 50 State Pain Advocacy groups

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