Longtime AIDS researcher Robert Redfield picked to lead CDC

March 22, 2018

A leading AIDS researcher, who is well respected for his clinical work but has no experience running a governmental public-health agency, was named March 21 to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement that Robert Redfield, a 66-year-old virologist and physician, has “dedicated his entire life to promoting public health and providing compassionate care to his patients, and we are proud to welcome him as director of the world’s premier epidemiological agency.”

The statement did not address Redfield’s once-controversial positions on HIV testing during the first decade of the AIDS crisis—which a top Senate Democrat cited March 19 in asking the White House to rethink its choice.

The decision had been expected since Redfield emerged late last week as the front-runner to become CDC director, a job for which he also was considered when George W. Bush was president. The position does not require Senate confirmation, and Redfield, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a former Army researcher, is expected to be sworn in and take up his job in only a few days.

Redfield’s main focus during his career has been chronic human infections, especially HIV/AIDS. He heads clinical care and research at the medical school’s Institute of Human Virology, which he founded with Robert Gallo, who co-discovered HIV as the cause of AIDS.

He also oversees a major program providing care to more than 6,000 patients in the Baltimore-Washington region, and more than 1.3 million patients in Africa and the Caribbean as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR. He served on Bush’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 2005 to 2009 and on advisory councils at the National Institutes of Health in earlier years.

But the policies he supported decades ago have raised deep concern among some AIDS advocates because they were not considered sound public health approaches to the epidemic. The critics believe they also stigmatized those who were infected and feared being fired—and losing their health insurance.

During the 1980s, as the chief Army AIDS researcher, Redfield was a strong supporter of mandatory HIV screening for the military before effective treatments were available. Recruits who tested positive were barred from military service.

He was also closely linked to a controversial and unsuccessful effort in Congress in 1991 to require HIV testing of healthcare professionals who perform invasive procedures, after a young woman, Kimberly Bergalis, contracted the virus from her dentist. The bill was introduced by Rep. William E. Dannemeyer, a California Republican who was one of the most conservative members of Congress.

In the early 1990s, while at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Redfield was accused of misrepresenting data about the effectiveness of an experimental AIDS vaccine that he was supporting. The vaccine ultimately failed. An investigation cleared Redfield of scientific misconduct charges.

During the same period in the 1990s, Army investigators also criticized Redfield’s close relationship with a conservative AIDS organization that strongly supported the vaccine and had received scientific information about it “to a degree that is inappropriate,” according to a 1993 Science article based on an extensive Army report. Investigators recommended that ties between Army researchers and the group “be severed so there is not an appearance of endorsement or favoritism,” Science reported.

With infectious disease outbreaks on the rise, the CDC plays a critical role in detecting, preventing and controlling their spread. The Atlanta-based agency is responsible for issues including the world’s most dangerous organisms, chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, and birth defects caused by the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

The Washington Post has the full story

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