Two months into the job, new U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has made one of his first major decisions — choosing a new leader of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, his choice for the world’s pre-eminent public agency, announced Wednesday, prompts this question:
Is Dr. Robert Redfield really the best person he could find?
The reason that the CDC needed a new director is because its last one, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, resigned earlier this year over her failure to jettison personal tobacco investments, a potential conflict of interest. Instead of replacing her with someone with unimpeachable credentials, as the Star Tribune Editorial Board recommended last month, Azar tapped Redfield, who has a “pattern of ethically and morally questionable behavior,” according to a March 19 letter from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The Murray letter spells out why Redfield, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is a dubious choice. During a previous tenure as chief of the department of retroviral research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Redfield became a vocal advocate for an experimental AIDS vaccine known as “gp-160.”
“In early 1993, the Army launched an investigation into Dr. Redfield’s work after he misrepresented data on gp-160’s effectiveness at an international conference,’’ the Murray letter stated. “The Army ultimately found no evidence of scientific misconduct but it did find that Redfield’s analysis of the vaccine trial data was faulty and criticized him for prematurely presenting the information.”
In addition, the Army investigation criticized Redfield’s close ties with the vaccine manufacturer. And it concluded that he had inappropriately shared information with a controversial AIDS lobbying group — one best-known for its abstinence-based approach to AIDS prevention — to generate support for the vaccine. Murray’s letter also notes that Redfield continued to champion AIDS policy at the time that was in violation of Army regulations or at odds with leading medical authorities.
Redfield does have defenders. In a March 21 Washington Post story, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Redfield is a “deeply experienced and compassionate public health physician.” The story also quoted former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat, praising Redfield. She called him a “caring doctor” and said he will bring passion to the fight against the opioid epidemic.
More than two decades have passed since the Army investigation, but the egregious incident of sloppy science and poor judgment casts a long shadow. It’s noteworthy that when an editorial writer previously reached out to top public health experts for recommendations on who Azar should consider for the CDC job, Redfield’s name did not come up. Murray’s letter also notes Redfield’s troubling “lack of public health expertise” and his failure to distance himself from his previously controversial views on AIDS.
The world depends on the CDC to track, contain and prevent infectious diseases. Its next leader faces a tough challenge: fighting emerging diseases such as Zika, fending off budget cuts and rebuilding trust with staff after Fitzgerald’s rocky tenure. The last thing the CDC needed is to have one scandal-plagued director replaced with someone whose checkered career may put it at risk of another leadership implosion.