Joe Biden’s nominee to head up the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a history of promoting special interests in Washington, leading to questions about his capacity to represent the public interest fairly. He has worked for dozens of pharmaceutical companies as a consultant, including all of the manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines. He has also expanded the availability and use of the abortion pill Mifeprex.
The White House issued a statement announcing the nomination of Dr. Robert Califf, which said he is one of the “most experienced clinical trialists” in America. The statement also said that Califf has the “experience and expertise” to lead the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden said that he is confident that the FDA will “continue science and data-driven decision making” under Califf’s direction. He also described Califf as having a “steady and independent hand.”
Califf is a professor of cardiology at the medical school of Duke University and founded the Duke Clinical Research Institute. He previously served as FDA Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner under President Barack Obama.
The Senate confirmed him for the FDA top position in 2016 by 89-4. However, his confirmation hearing that year focused on his potential conflicts of interest because of his long experience working for pharmaceutical giants.
Califf was questioned on the topic by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who said that many pharmaceutical companies “spend a lot of time and money arguing that the FDA is just too tough.” She asked Califf if he agreed with efforts to lower FDA approval standards. He said at the time that he was in favor of raising approval standards by requiring more thorough studies that “show the full gamut of risk and benefit” of new drugs.
Califf’s record of deep industry ties may override his rhetoric this time around. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said that Califf’s nomination takes the country “backward, not forward.” The confirmation hearing is set for next Tuesday, and Republican Senators will be critical to Califf’s prospects, as both Manchin and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have said that they will not vote to confirm.
Disclosures made at his 2016 nomination showed the depth of Califf’s connections at Duke to giant pharmaceutical companies. Then, immediately after his confirmation Califf pulled back on restrictions on the abortion pill Mifeprex, also known as the abortifacient drug RU-486.