Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Sheila Kaplan, The New York Times: November 12, 2021
WASHINGTON — President Biden on Friday is expected to nominate Dr. Robert M. Califf, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, to lead the agency again, several people familiar with the planning said. The move would end nearly a year of political wrangling as the White House vetted then dropped several candidates after complaints that some were too close to the pharmaceutical industry.
In the end, White House officials might have concluded that they could not find a suitable candidate with no industry ties. Dr. Califf, 70, a respected academic and clinical trial researcher who ran the agency during the last year of the Obama administration, has long been a consultant to drug companies and ran a research center at Duke University that received some funding from the drug industry.
During his previous stint as commissioner, Dr. Califf sought to permit pharmaceutical companies to advertise off-label uses for F.D.A.-approved products, a practice that is not permitted under the strict regulations governing drug advertising. But the proposal, which many public health experts considered dangerous, was blocked by others in the Obama administration, according to a person familiar with it.
A cardiologist who has seen the harmful effects of smoking on the heart, Dr. Califf has been a forceful advocate for tobacco control; before he was the F.D.A. commissioner, he was the agency’s deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco. In an appearance with other former commissioners this year, he said, “I have never seen more capable or nastier lawyers than what I experienced in trying to deal with the tobacco industry.”
He added, “It was awesome and quite frightening for public health.”
For the past two years, after stepping down as the vice chancellor for clinical and translational health at Duke University, Dr. Califf has worked as senior adviser to Verily Life Sciences, a health technology firm, and its sister company Google Health. He has encouraged Verily to focus on addiction, cardiovascular health and management of chronic diseases, according to a person at the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Dr. Califf’s relationships with pharmaceutical companies as a clinical trials researcher proved to be a liability during his Senate confirmation process in 2016. Mr. Manchin blasted him for “big pharma ties” and voted against him.
Dr. Califf was confirmed for the job in a vote of 89 to 4; in addition to Mr. Manchin, Senators Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts; Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut; and Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, voted against him. But other Republicans, led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then the majority leader, voted in favor.
That support may be one reason Mr. Biden picked Mr. Califf: His selection drew mixed reaction.
“It is surprising that the White House has seemed really tone-deaf on conflicts of interest and very close ties to the industry,” said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit think tank.
But others said they believed that Dr. Califf’s industry experience should not bar him from the job, noting that he has disclosed his ties in publishing the results of clinical trials.
“The truth of the matter is industry develops drugs — you have to work with industry. The issue is disclosure in publication,” said Ellen V. Sigal, the founder and chairwoman of the nonprofit Friends of Cancer Research, which accepts industry funding. “Rob has done many, many clinical trials with industry, but he has not been a pawn of industry. He’s completely committed to transparency, integrity and science.”
But Dr. [Aaron] Kesselheim objected to Dr. Califf’s efforts, when he was the commissioner, to allow drug companies to advertise off-label uses for their products, noting that patients can be endangered by drugs that are prescribed for uses that the F.D.A. has not approved. “That to me is a red flag,” Dr. Kesselheim said. “Hopefully, he’s moved past that as an idea, because it would be a terrible idea.”
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