New CDC director meets resistance from Democrats

Robert Redfield, MD, has been named the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But before his appointment, a top Senate Democrat said complaints about his past work as an HIV/AIDS researcher would make him an unsuitable public health leader. 

That research experience was touted by HHS Secretary Alex Azar in the press release announcing Redfield’s selection.

“During his two-decade tenure at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, he made pioneering contributions to advance our understanding of HIV/AIDS,” Azar said in a statement. “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 worked in the retroviral research department within the U.S. Military HIV Research Program and spent 20 years serving in the Army Medical Corps. He also spent time as a member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 2005 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. More recently, he was a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, co-founding the school’s Institute of Human Virology.

What troubled Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate health committee, was his work as a principal investigator on an experimental AIDS vaccine called gp-160 in the early 1990s. Redfield was investigated by the Army for misrepresenting data on the vaccine’s effectiveness. He denied any misconduct and the Army determined there was no evidence of manipulation or deception.

The investigation itself, however, has been criticized for allegedly ignoring documented evidence of scientific misconduct. Former Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Hendrix, MD, director of an Air Force HIV clinical unit at the time, told Kaiser Health News Redfield was either “egregiously sloppy with data or it was fabricated.” Hendrix has since used the military’s handling of the matter—while omitting Redfield’s name—in his class on medical ethics at John Hopkins University.

Murray has other complaints about Redfield’s past, such as his advocacy for segregating HIV-positive members of the military and “widespread patient testing” for HIV, such as mandating tests during physical exams, clinical visits, hospitalizations and even when applying for marriage licenses.

“His positions on mandatory testing and segregation of HIV-positive soldiers were inconsistent with what public health officials, including the CDC, recommended at the time, and he has taken no action to distance himself from those positions,” Murray said in a letter to President Donald Trump. “If you choose to move forward with his appointment despite his controversial positions, I will seek his assurances that he has changed his positions in these key areas and that he understands the importance of conducting research with integrity and independent from the influence of special interests. I will also seek to ensure that he acknowledges the importance of the CDC Director embracing science and demonstrating experience in public health.”

Now that the appointment has been made, there’s little Murray and other Democrats can do, as the position of CDC Director doesn’t require confirmation by the Senate. In contrast, Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, the chair of the Senate health committee, praised Redfield’s selection.

“Dr. Redfield has a strong background to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention— he has spent his career researching public health threats such as HIV/AIDS and drug addiction,” Alexander said in a statement. “I am looking forward to discussing the work we have ahead of us to help states and communities fight the opioid crisis.”