The Trump administration has tapped HIV researcher Dr. Robert Redfield to be the new leader of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Redfield will be replacing Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who stepped down from CDC director after Politico reported that she had bought shares in a tobacco company after accepting the position. Redfield will not require Senate confirmation.
However, reactions to his selection have been mixed.
Before joining the CDC, Redfield was a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the co-founder of the university’s Institute of Human Virology. Over his career, he is credited with making important observations on the transmission of HIV, and he has studied the care of people with chronic viral infections.
However, his reputation as an HIV expert is not without controversy. In 1993, Redfield was investigated by the U.S. Army for allegedly misrepresenting data regarding an AIDS vaccine under research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. The vaccine was meant to help treat people already infected with the disease. During presentations, Redfield reportedly described statistically significant decreases in the amount of HIV in the blood of people who received the vaccine, but Redfield was later accused of misrepresenting that data.
Though the Army acknowledged there were issues about the accuracy of the data, Redfield was ultimately cleared of any allegations of scientific misconduct. However, one of the whistleblowers who raised the issue of the trial data to the Army told Kaiser Health News (KHN) that he remains concerned about what happened. “Either he was egregiously sloppy with data or it was fabricated,” said former Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Hendrix, a doctor who is now director of the division of clinical pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, to KHN. “It was somewhere on that spectrum, both of which were serious and raised questions about his trustworthiness.”
In a letter to President Donald Trump, Sen. Patty Murray also called out a policy advocated by Redfield in which HIV-positive soldiers were segregated from other soldiers. Redfield also helped implement an HIV screening program where military recruits were screened for the disease and barred from service if they tested positive. “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 in her letter.
Public health leaders have also questioned Redfield’s lack of experience leading a public health agency, and the potential impact of his reportedly conservative positions on sexual health.
Still, others argue he’s a respected researcher who will be a great fit for the position. “It’s nice to have someone competent and committed to HIV/AIDS,” said Dr. Jim Curran, a former head of CDC’s HIV/AIDS program and current dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta to Science. “Most of the bad things he was associated with were quite a while ago and, unlike some of the people involved with AIDS in the beginning, he’s been really, really committed for a long period of time.”
A former CDC director under former President Barack Obama, Dr. Tom Frieden, shared words of encouragement for Redfield on Twitter:
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called Redfield’s scientific and clinical background “peerless” when announcing his appointment. “Dr. Redfield 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,” wrote Azar.