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Hammond: Cuomo administration too secretive on vaccine review

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After second-guessing the FDA with its own vaccine task force, the Cuomo administration is declining to share even basic information about that panel's approval process until mid-February.

Replying to a Freedom of Information Law request from the Empire Center, the governor's office said it would need almost seven weeks to locate and review records of the task force's meetings, the most recent of which happened less than three weeks ago.

The secrecy and delay raise further questions about the value of Governor Cuomo's review – which has been widely criticized for feeding rather than assuaging public skepticism about vaccines.

In September, Cuomo appointed a seven-member Clinical Advisory Task Force to verify the safety and effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines, saying he didn't trust the Trump administration to do the job properly.

The panel, which included a Nobel Prize-winning virologist, held no public meetings and issued no written report or statement.

The only word about the task force's activities came from Cuomo himself, who announced its approvals of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines during his daily briefings, with no further elaboration beyond saying the decisions had been unanimous. The news came within hours of the Food and Drug Administration issuing its own authorizations, which happened on Dec. 11 and 18.

On Dec. 22, the Empire Center requested records of the task force's activities, including:

The date, time and attendance for each task force meeting,

Minutes, recordings or transcripts of the proceedings,

Studies, research reports and data provided to task force members, and

Guidelines, instructions or recommendations to the task force from state officials.

In its emailed reply – delivered at 5 p.m. on New Year's Eve – the governor's office estimated it would need almost seven weeks to comply: "We are conducting a search for records that respond to your requests and will review them for applicable exemptions under FOIL. We will provide you with a status update on or before February 16, 2021."

When FOIL requests cannot be fulfilled within 20 business days, the law requires agencies to set a "date certain" when the records will be provided. However, state agencies typically give only an approximate completion date, and often extend that date repeatedly over a period of months before completing a request.

The lack of public information about Cuomo's vaccine review stands in contrast to the far more transparent federal process.

The FDA posts its agendas and background materials in advance of meetings, which are conducted in public, live-streamed on the web and archived for later viewing. The FDA conducts its drug reviews under long-standing standards and procedures spelled out in law and regulation, and the key research findings behind its decision-making are a matter of public record.

The procedures and standards applied by Cuomo's task force have not been disclosed, nor is there any indication of what research they looked at.

It was never clear why the judgment of Cuomo's chosen experts – though well qualified – would carry more credibility than the much-scrutinized deliberations of the FDA, whose members have comparable expertise and credentials.

The secrecy surrounding how the task force conducted its business only raises more questions: Did the panel truly conduct a rigorous and independent review, or did it merely rubber-stamp the conclusion of a federal agency with far more resources and experience – which seems to have done its job honestly and well?

Cuomo's stated purpose in conducting this review was to reassure the public that the vaccines are safe and effective. Hiding information from the public does nothing to serve that goal.

Bill Hammond is senior fellow for health policy for the Empire Center.

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