Laurie McGinley, Washington Post: November 12, 2021
President Biden is expected Friday to nominate former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Robert M. Califf to return as the agency’s head, ending a difficult, months-long search to find a leader for the sprawling bureaucracy on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
The announcement is expected later in the day, according to people familiar with the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.
Califf, 70, a renowned cardiologist and researcher, is senior adviser for Verily, a research organization devoted to the life sciences, and Google Health. He served as FDA commissioner during the last year of the Obama administration. Before that, he had a long career at Duke University School of Medicine, where he founded the Duke Clinical Research Institute, one of the largest academic clinical trial operations in the world.
Many FDA experts see Califf as a safe choice — an experienced hand who is unlikely to make abrupt changes as the agency navigates a tumultuous period marked by high-pressure reviews of coronavirus vaccines and therapies and hot-button issues involving Alzheimer’s treatments, opioids and tobacco products. An expert on clinical trials and other types of health data, Califf is likely to press for better evidence in assessing drugs and devices.
But others hoping for fresh leadership see Califf’s nomination as a missed opportunity. Some are uncomfortable with his longtime relationships with the pharmaceutical industry.
“I think he would be terrific,” said Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist at Yale School of Medicine. “It is critically important to have a commissioner who can step in and knows the job and knows how to make policy decisions.”
Even some of the agency’s toughest critics say Califf is acceptable.
“Rob Califf is a good choice,” said Aaron S. Kesselheim, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who has faulted the FDA for approving drugs on what he considers flimsy evidence. “Califf certainly spent the vast majority of his early career working on clinical trials … and understands the value of rigorous data.”
But Califf’s longtime industry relationships have drawn criticism from some who argue the agency already is too close to the companies it regulates.
“Califf has a long history of extensive financial ties to Big Pharma, most significantly through pharmaceutical industry funding of the Duke Clinical Research Institute,” said Michael Carome, director of nonprofit Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization. “We need someone to tilt in the opposite direction and be more pro-public health and less pro-regulated industry.”
Some past critics, however, have softened their views of Califf. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit think tank, said that while she still considers Califf’s industry ties to be a shortcoming, “He has certain qualities that are very good for the position. He has experience at the FDA and a commitment to science. That’s very important.”
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