Trump adviser tied to efforts to downplay COVID-19 not on McMaster's payroll, university says

McMaster University appears to be distancing itself from a a part-time faculty member who's been working for the Trump administration to allegedly downplay the impact of COVID-19.

One professor says it's 'shameful' that there's a McMaster tie

U.S. President Donald President Trump has been accused of directing some of his officials to interfere with the information coming out of federal health agencies in order to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19. Paul Alexander, who has ties to Hamilton's McMaster University, is one such official. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Hamilton's McMaster University appears to be distancing itself from a part-time faculty member who's been working for the Trump administration to allegedly downplay the impacts of COVID-19.

McMaster issued a statement Monday saying Paul Alexander graduated with a PhD in health research methodologies in 2015, but he's not on the payroll right now.

"He is not currently teaching and he is not paid by the university for his contract role as a part-time assistant professor," spokesperson Susan Emigh said in a statement. 

"As a consultant, he is not speaking on behalf of McMaster University or the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence and Impact."

Alexander is scheduled to appear before a congressional subcommittee on Sept. 24, and bring any emails or reports related to COVID-19 deaths and infections, hydroxychloroquine and the impact the virus has on children. He did not respond to a request for an interview from CBC News.

The committee will grill him about his recent demands on behalf of the Trump administration to alter weekly Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports — alterations that appear to downplay the impact of the pandemic on schools.

In one email, the Washington Post reports, Alexander accused the CDC of writing "hit pieces on the administration" with its morbidity and mortality weekly reports. "CDC tried to report as if once kids get together, there will be spread and this will impact school reopening.… Very misleading by CDC and shame on them. Their aim is clear."

The emails were first reported by Politico.

Alexander is working with Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo is now assistant secretary for public affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Alexander is working as an adviser to Caputo. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

"Political appointees at HHS, including [Caputo] and senior adviser Paul Alexander, have reportedly been especially focused on suppressing truthful CDC reports on risks to children," says a letter from the congressional select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis

The letter also accuses administration officials of delaying by a month a CDC report that warned of the dangers of hydroxychloroquine. The malaria drug has been touted by Trump as a favoured treatment despite little evidence to support its use in treating COVID-19. 

Article in favour of hydroxychloroquine

Alexander is listed on the McMaster website as a part-time assistant professor in the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence and Impact. 

His publications this year include "COVID-19 coronavirus research has overall low methodology quality thus far: case in point for chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine," published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. 

When contacted by CBC News, academics in Alexander's department directed inquiries to Emigh.

"Scientists may have different approaches or views on issues," Emigh said in an email. "Sometimes those views are controversial and can become political. What is vital is that scientific evidence is the foundation of all our research and teaching at McMaster."

Lionel Mandell, professor emeritus in McMaster's division of infectious diseases, says he doesn't know Alexander and had never heard of him until American colleagues asked about him.

"He's not an infectious disease clinician or physician," Mandell said. "Certainly, if some of the comments attributed to him are in fact true, I think they are inappropriate."

Separating health research and politics

Mandell says it's not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with what Alexander is saying. "To me, the more important question is whether he should be saying this, or pressuring the CDC."

In the case of pandemics, politics and science should be separate, he said. Agencies like the CDC should be free to do their work for the sake of human health. 

"Unfortunately, this whole COVID thing in the United States has become politicized and weaponized."

Lots of scientists work with government, he said, but "I think it depends on how you're working with them." 

"I've never been put in a position where I've worked with the government to pressure someone."

Human life 'at stake'

Prof. Henry Giroux is a prolific author and cultural critic in McMaster's Department of English and Cultural Studies. He's also the university's chair for scholarship in the public interest, and a frequent critic of Trump.

Giroux calls it "shameful" that someone with McMaster ties is doing this work. The Trump administration is attempting to control the CDC and other public institutions. 

"What's at stake is human life," he said. "We haven't faced a crisis of this sort since World War 2."

Academics are free to be controversial, he said, but "once they're saying something that endangers public health, it violates any notion of what it means to be an academic."

"The university does censor people who falsify information. I'm not sure where this falls into that category."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca