Matthew Perrone and Zeke Miller, AP News: November 12, 2021
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Friday is tapping Dr. Robert Califf, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, to again lead the powerful regulatory agency, according to a person familiar with the decision.
Califf’s nomination comes after months of the concern that the agency near the center of the government’s COVID-19 response has lacked a permanent leader. More than a half-dozen names were floated for the job before the White House settled on Califf.
Biden is to make the formal announcement later Friday, said the person familiar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement.
A cardiologist and clinical trial specialist, Califf, 70, served as FDA commissioner for the last 11 months of President Barack Obama’s second term. Before that, he spent one year as the agency’s No. 2 official after more than 35 years as a prominent researcher at Duke University, where he helped design studies for many of the world’s biggest drugmakers.
Since leaving the government, he has worked as a policy adviser to tech giant Google, in addition to his ongoing academic work at Duke.
Califf arrived at the FDA in 2015 determined to modernize how the agency reviewed drug and device study data. But his brief time as commissioner was dominated by unrelated pharmaceutical controversies, including the surging epidemic of opioid addiction and overdoses.
He was among the first FDA officials to publicly acknowledge missteps in the agency’s oversight of painkillers like OxyContin, which is widely blamed for sparking the ongoing opioid epidemic, now driven by heroin and fentanyl.
“If addiction to opioids and misuse of opioids is an enemy then we at the FDA — like every other part of society — underestimated the tenacity of the enemy,” Califf told The Associated Press in a 2016 interview. “So we’ve got to adjust.”
Califf’s extensive work with the drug industry drew scrutiny during his Senate confirmation hearing, though he was ultimately confirmed by an overwhelming margin. Given the pressing need for a permanent commissioner, he is expected to again win bipartisan confirmation. He also has the backing of the powerful pharmaceutical and medical device lobbying groups in Washington.
FDA watchers said Califf had several key advantages over other candidates vetted for the job, several of whom would have faced more scrutiny in the Senate.
“He knows how the FDA works, and he avoided making any outrageous decisions as commissioner,” said Diana Zuckerman of the non-profit National Center for Health Research. “Those are essential if the FDA is going to regain the public trust.”
His first tasks would include easing burnout and boosting morale among the FDA’s 18,000 employees. The agency’s medical reviewers have been straining for months under a crushing coronavirus pandemic workload, while the agency’s reputation for scientific independence has been battered by a string of public controversies.
Two congressional committees are investigating the agency’s June approval of the much-debated Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm against the recommendation of its outside experts, three of whom resigned over the decision. Then in September, two top FDA vaccine regulators announced they would leave the agency after disagreeing with the Biden administration plan to make COVID-19 vaccines boosters widely available.
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