Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, resigned as CDC director after spending less than 7 months in the position because of financial conflicts, including shares in a tobacco company, that HHS said were “limiting her ability” to do her job.
New HHS secretary Alex Azar II accepted Fitzgerald’s resignation this morning, a department spokesman said.
An OB/GYN, Fitzgerald led the Georgia Department of Public Health for 6 years before being named CDC director last July. She replaced Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, who stepped down after a nearly 8-year tenure when President Donald J. Trump was inaugurated.
On Tuesday, Politico reported that Fitzgerald bought shares in a tobacco company 1 month into her new position as head of the CDC, which is tasked with reducing tobacco use among Americans. She was already facing scrutiny for failing to divest from other holdings that pose potential conflicts of interest, according to the Politico report.
"Dr. Fitzgerald owns certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as the CDC Director,” HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd said in a statement. “Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period.”
According to Politico, Fitzgerald’s potentially conflicting stock holdings included shares in one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, Japan Tobacco International, which she purchased 1 day before touring the CDC’s Tobacco Laboratory, which investigates exposures to the chemicals in tobacco products. She also owned stock in the pharmaceutical companies Merck and Bayer, purchased after she was named CDC director, and previously purchased holdings in two other companies that precluded her from testifying in front of Congress.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, said she “repeatedly raised concerns about Fitzgerald’s conflicts of interest and broad recusals from work impacting public health issues like cancer and opioids.”
Politico reported that Fitzgerald sold the tobacco shares on Oct. 26 and all her stock holdings over $1,000 by Nov. 21. It was unclear whether she had approved the stock purchases in question, although Frieden, an outspoken critic of tobacco use, said she told him personally that she was unaware of the tobacco shares.
“Dr. Fitzgerald impressed me as someone committed to supporting public health and protecting Americans. I have spoken with Dr. Fitzgerald and believe her when she says that she was unaware that a tobacco company investment had been made, she understands that any affiliation between the tobacco industry and public health is unacceptable, and that when she learned of it, she directed that it be sold,” said Frieden, now the president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global health program he launched to reduce global deaths from heart attack and stroke. “I wish her well and hope the next director remains focused on using science to protect Americans from threats that arise in this country and anywhere in the world.”
Azar, who was just sworn in as the Trump administration’s second HHS secretary on Monday, accepted Fitzgerald’s resignation after she had advised him “of both the status of the financial interests and the scope of her recusal,” Lloyd said. It marked yet another high-profile exit of a federal official or appointee since Trump has taken office, including the September resignation of Azar’s predecessor, Tom Price, MD, who stepped down as HHS secretary amid scrutiny over his costly travel habits.
Fitzgerald’s appointment last year eased some concerns about one of Trump’s more troubling viewpoints from a public health perspective: his public support for certain anti-vaccine views, such as the debunked claim that they cause autism. When she led the Georgia health department, Fitzgerald oversaw a public health program for infectious diseases and immunizations, and wrote two provaccination newspaper columns for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Fitzgerald recently took part in a teleconference about this season’s severe influenza epidemic and co-authored an editorial in JAMA about an increase in birth defects related to Zika virus infection. – by Gerard Gallagher
Disclosures: Frieden reports no relevant financial disclosures. Lloyd works for HHS.