After meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower Tuesday, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told reporters that Trump has asked him to "chair a commission on vaccination safety and scientific integrity" and that he has accepted.
Both Trump and Kennedy have spread fringe theories linking vaccines to autism in children, an idea that medical experts overwhelmingly reject and have warned is endangering public health by discouraging parents from immunizing their kids.
"President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it," Kennedy told the press. "He says 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."
A spokesman for Trump, Hope Hicks, told NBC News later that the president-elect was "exploring the possibility of forming a committee on autism" with Kennedy but that "no decisions have been made at this time."
Kennedy drew fire last year for describing a “holocaust” of children allegedly hurt by immunization at a screening of a film on the topic (he later apologized for the term).
Trump tweeted several times in 2014 that the use of multiple vaccinations caused autism, claiming at one point “the doctors lied.” Doctors and researchers who specialize in infectious diseases expressed concern after Trump and other candidates promoted the theory in a Republican debate in September 2015.
“Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, 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,” Trump said at the time.
He offered no details or evidence on the case. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement after the debate calling his comments "dangerous to public health."
On Tuesday, the AAP's leaders offered "to share the extensive scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines" with the new commission.
"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," the group said in a statement. "Delaying vaccines only leaves a child at risk of disease."
Autism Speaks, an organization that advocates for individuals with autism, released a statement to NBC News after Trump's meeting with Kennedy, reiterating its conclusion that vaccines were unrelated to the condition.
“Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism," the statement said. "The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism.”
Doctors trace the popular fear to a debunked 1998 study in the British medical journal Lancet that the publication later retracted after discovering its lead author was involved in a lawsuit against drug companies and used flawed methods.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that there is no link between autism and vaccines, citing numerous subsequent studies. An Immunization Safety Commission organized by the Institute of Medicine examined the issue and reached the same conclusion in multiple reports.
But the theory persists, aided in part by celebrity advocates. Experts have warned that this small but vocal group of doubters is helping fuel outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough in communities where parents decline to vaccinate their children.
Health experts who have worked on vaccination policy and science strongly criticized Kennedy's reported new role in interviews.
Marie McCormick, a Harvard professor of maternal and child health who chaired the Immunization Safety Commission, expressed concern that Trump and Kennedy might lend a presidential seal to misinformation.
"If the committee comes out saying there is an [autism] association, there will be people who avoid vaccines," McCormick told NBC News. "There have been actual deaths attributed to lower immunization rates."
Dr. Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and father of an adult daughter with autism, said he feared the commission could provide new momentum for vaccine skeptics at home and abroad.
"By appointing [Kennedy], it's going to create a new national 'anti-vaxxer' movement," he said.
Trump has generally been skeptical of scientific expertise, however. He has repeatedly claimed the overwhelming body of research linking climate change to human activities is a hoax.
He is one of several politicians to draw rebukes from medical experts in recent years for entertaining vaccination and autism links. Former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann claimed an HPV vaccine caused a child to become “retarded” after a Republican debate in 2011. More recently, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), an ophthalmologist, and Dr. Ben Carson, a surgeon, also raised concerns that too many vaccines pose a danger.
In 2008, then-candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain indicated to activists concerned about the issue that they supported research into the matter. Obama and Clinton later said that the science was settled and urged families to vaccinate their children.