Controversial CDC pick draws mixed reactions
The Trump administration’s selection of longtime AIDS researcher Robert R. Redfield, MD, to be the next CDC director drew mixed reactions from experts and officials, including some who question his conduct on a research project several decades ago.
HHS secretary Alex Azar announced the selection, saying Redfield “has dedicated his entire life to promoting public health and providing compassionate care to his patients.”
“Dr. Redfield’s scientific and clinical background is peerless,” Azar said in a statement. “As just one example, during his 2-decade tenure at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, he made pioneering contributions to advance our understanding of HIV/AIDS. His more recent work running a treatment network in Baltimore for HIV and hepatitis C patients also prepares him to hit the ground running on one of HHS and CDC’s top priorities, combating the opioid epidemic.”
Redfield co-founded the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology in 1996 and held several positions at the university’s medical school, including professor of translational medicine and chief of infectious diseases.
In the days leading up to his appointment, concerns were raised about Redfield’s behavior as the principal investigator during HIV clinical trials for an experimental vaccine at Walter Reed in the 1990s.
“Either he was egregiously sloppy with data or it was fabricated,” Craig W. Hendrix, MD, now a professor and director of the division of pharmacology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told Kaiser Health News. “It was somewhere on that spectrum, both of which were serious and raised questions about his trustworthiness.”
Hendrix, then an HIV researcher in the Air Force, told Kaiser Health News that he reported concerns about Redfield’s data to his superiors after he and two members of Redfield’s team could not replicate the results. According to the news report, Redfield acknowledged overstating how promising his results were, but later was heard by Hendrix making the same inaccurate representations of the research during a conference.
The Army acknowledged in 1994 that there were accuracy issues with the trials led by Redfield but concluded that it did not constitute misconduct, according to the report. Redfield also denied misconduct at the time, and Hendrix said the Army never appeared to fully investigate the matter.
A source close to the situation told Infectious Disease News “it was years ago and people can change.”
“Let’s hope so,” said the source, who did not want to be identified. “There are also many other elements to an appointment like this. However, CDC is too important an institution not to be led by a person of great integrity that can deal openly and honestly with the facts, whatever they may be. Our current world is so upside down with intentional deception, I always hope for leaders who will always speak truthfully.”
Carlos del Rio, MD, an HIV specialist and professor of medicine at Emory School of Medicine, said he appreciates the concerns raised by the story but thinks Redfield has experience that will help him as CDC director.
“He is a good person and, in fact, as good as we are going to get from this administration,” del Rio told Infectious Disease News. “Dr. Redfield is a scientist who has been working on the HIV epidemic for many years both locally and globally. He is also someone who has been involved in addressing the opioid epidemic and this will be extremely valuable as the country continues to confront the opioid crisis ... I know him personally and can say that he is committed to end the HIV epidemic.”
After news of Redfield’s impending selection leaked, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, sent a letter to President Donald J. Trump urging him to “rethink” the appointment, which is not subject to Senate confirmation.
Murray noted what she called Redfield’s “questionable behavior” and past support for controversial positions regarding the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, including his support for an Army practice of segregating HIV-positive troops into separate housing and his opinion that all positive HIV tests should be reported to public health officials without a patient’s consent.
“This pattern of ethically and morally questionable behavior leads me to seriously question whether Dr. Redfield is qualified to be the federal government’s chief advocate and spokesperson for public health,” Murray wrote.
Trump’s first pick to lead the CDC, Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, resigned in January after less than 7 months on the job because of multiple financial conflicts of interest, including her ownership of tobacco stocks, that HHS said were “limiting her ability” to do her job. The conflicts prevented Fitzgerald from ever testifying in front of Congress. It was one of many high-profile exits of federal officials during Trump’s tenure and came just months after Azar’s predecessor, Tom Price, MD, stepped down as HHS secretary amid scrutiny over his travel expenses.
Anne Schuchat, MD, the CDC’s principal deputy director, was serving as acting director since Fitzgerald resigned.
Former CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, said the post is critical to protect the health of Americans.
“I wish Dr. Redfield well, and hope he will be an effective advocate for both funding and the scientific independence of CDC, while earning the trust and support of its world-class doctors and scientists,” he said. – by Gerard Gallagher
Disclosures: Azar, del Rio, Frieden and Murray report no relevant financial disclosures.