Despite allegations that he oversaw shoddy HIV research 20 years ago, Robert R. Redfield, M.D., will become the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, made the announcement late Wednesday, praising Redfield’s lifelong dedication to public health and his compassionate care to patients.
“Dr. Redfield’s scientific and clinical background is peerless: As just one example, 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. “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 will take over the position previously held by Brenda Fitzgerald, who resigned in January after ethical questions over her purchase of shares of a tobacco company one month after she took over leadership of the agency. In the interim, Ann Schuchat, M.D., has been serving as acting director of the CDC.
The HHS announcement notes that Redfield has worked in clinical research and clinical care of chronic human viral infections and infectious diseases, especially HIV, for more than 30 years. He served as the founding director of the Department of Retroviral Research within the U.S. Military’s HIV Research Program, and retired after 20 years of service in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
He later co-founded the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology and served as the chief of Infectious Diseases and vice chair of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. His bio notes his early contributions to the scientific understanding of HIV, including the demonstration of the importance of heterosexual transmission, the development of the Walter Reed staging system for HIV infection, and the demonstration of active HIV replication in all stages of HIV infection.
Redfield also served as a member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 2005 to 2009 and was appointed as chair of the International Subcommittee from 2006 to 2009. He is a past member of the Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council at the National Institutes of Health, the Fogarty International Center Advisory Board at the National Institutes of Health, and the Advisory Anti-Infective Agent Committee of the Food and Drug Administration.
Allegations of questionable research
But not everyone is enamored by Redfield’s work, especially Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Hendrix, M.D., who is now director of the division of clinical pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Hendrix told Kaiser Health News Wednesday that Redfield’s research over clinical trials of a treatment vaccine at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research 20 years ago was either sloppy or the data was fabricated. Although the Army acknowledged accuracy issues with the research in 1994, it found that the data errors did not constitute misconduct, according to KHN.
The publication also reported that Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the health committee, told President Donald Trump in a letter this week that he should reconsider the appointment given Redfield’s research controversy, which she called an example of a “pattern of ethically and morally questionable behavior.”
Reaction from the field
But HHS didn’t address the controversy in the announcement and later sent out another email with words of praise for Redfield from lawmakers and public health experts. For example, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, said Redfield was the “very best person” to meet Azar’s goal of having “someone at the CDC who truly understands the human suffering from infectious disease and how to alleviate it.”
James Curran, M.D., dean, Rollins School of Public Health and co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research, Emory University, said that Redfield “understands the public health challenges of infectious disease both at home and abroad, and will be a great advocate for the national and global public health work of the CDC.”
And Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said that though he seldom agrees with the Trump administration, “I am in complete agreement that Dr. Bob Redfield is the best choice to lead the CDC.”