A doctor with the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a longtime AIDS researcher who helped found the school’s prestigious Institute of Human Virology, has been appointed the new head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The appointment of Dr. Robert Redfield Jr., an infectious disease expert, was announced late Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Health Secretary Alex Azar lauded Redfield for his contribution to advancing the understanding of HIV/AIDS. His most recent work was running a treatment center for HIV and hepatitis C patients that Azar said will prepare Redfield for fighting the opioid epidemic, one of the CDC’s most pressing issues.
“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. Dr. Redfield’s scientific and clinical background is peerless,” Azar said.
Redfield was not available for comment. He was also a finalist for CDC head in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration.
His appointment already was being met with criticism from people who said his background was mostly in research and that he lacked public health experience. He was also at the center of an experimental and controversial AIDS vaccine in the 1990s.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, sent a letter to President Donald J. Trump, raising concerns about Redfield’s appointment that said his controversial positions on issues regarding HIV/AIDS raised questions about his qualifications about the job. Murray, ranking member of the committee that oversees CDC, also criticized his lack of public health experience.
“I believe the CDC Director must first and foremost be a champion of public health and ensure this Administration embraces the science around public health in both its domestic and global work,” Murray wrote. “I am concerned by Dr. Redfield’s lack of public health expertise and his failure to embrace the science underscoring critical public health work, and I urge you to reconsider him as a candidate for CDC Director.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest also protested the selection of Redfield because of what it says is a history of scientific misconduct. The group said he doesn’t have important relationships with local health departments.
Dr. Peter Lurie, the organization’s president, called the appointment “disastrous.” He noted that Redfield was investigated by the military for scientific misconduct for exaggerating the benefits of a “putative” HIV vaccine. Researcher disputed his findings that the vaccine worked and Congress stopped plans for a large clinical trial. Smaller studies later proved the vaccine ineffective, but the investigation cleared Redfield.
“What one wants in a director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a scientist of impeccable scientific integrity,” Lurie said in a statement before the announcement, when Redfield was being considered.
Redfield also has supported a variety of policies related to HIV/AIDS that many public health professionals don’t support, including mandatory HIV testing, reporting of positive HIV results to public health authorities without the patient’s consent, and quarantining of HIV-positive individuals in the military, Lurie said.
Redfield suggested those policies in the 1980s and 1990s when researchers were still learning about the disease.
The Trump administration’s previous CDC director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, resigned after questions were raised about conflicts of interests related to some of her financial investments
Redfield began his career in the late 1970’s at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and co-founded the Institute on Human Virology at Maryland in 1996. The institute’s patient base grew from 200 patients to more 6,000 in Baltimore and Washington under his tenure. It also has more than 1.3 million patients in African and Caribbean nations.
“Dr. Redfield was one of my early collaborators in co-discovering HIV as the cause of AIDS and demonstrating heterosexual transmission of AIDS,” said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, also co-founder of the human virology institute, in a statement. “He is a dedicated and compassionate physician who truly cares about his patients and is deeply committed to ensuring patients receive the highest quality of care possible. Dr. Redfield has served his country well, and consistently demonstrates strong public health instincts that are grounded in science and clinical medicine.”
Dr. E. Albert Reece, dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that Redfield is “eminently qualified for this critical position.”
"He has made a lifelong commitment to advancing biomedical research and human health through discovery-based medicine,” Reece said in a statement. “…. he has been one of the most accomplished scientists and public health advocates in the nation in increasing our understanding of the prevention and treatment of infectious disease. His significant contributions have led to the treatment of more than a million HIV patients by the Institute in the U.S. and around the world.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.