By Kate Springer, NowThis
Biden Chooses Robert Califf to Lead F.D.A., Despite Drug Industry Ties
As the nation reacts to the greatest health crisis in history, Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday tapped a former top aide and fellow pharma executive as the next director of the Food and Drug Administration.
But while Biden’s pick could signal a major shift at the agency, he is known for his humble beginnings in a midwestern farming community — skills that could come in handy as he prepares to overhaul the agency that controls drug approvals.
Biden is considering additional candidates to replace FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, whose four-year term ends in June. He’s set to announce his choice of a new chairman of the FDA at a healthcare forum in Pittsburgh on Thursday. And he’s set to name a new drug czar within the administration as well. A Biden spokeswoman declined to comment on speculation surrounding a major staff shakeup.
But some health experts said appointing Califf, who has worked in the industry and been a critic of it, could be a move to make the FDA more effective as Trump begins to push through his ambitious agenda of repealing and replacing Obamacare.
The new chairman and chief executive of the Lexington, Massachusetts-based drugmaker Eli Lilly, Califf — who studied chemistry at Harvard and Columbia universities and whose appointment will likely be discussed at a Friday hearing — will be “a great leader for an agency that’s likely going to see a lot of tension in the next 18 months with the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act,” said Dr Daniel Grossman, a prominent public health consultant, president of the Orchid Group and a former assistant secretary for public health affairs under Barack Obama.
“Having somebody with both experience in medicine and in business is so important to an agency that operates in this complex corporate world,” Grossman said.
But others expressed concerns that Biden, who has long worked to boost the ranks of women in the science and tech fields, had chosen to place a pharma executive in one of the most prominent science positions in government.
“The fact that he is going with a pharma guy raises all kinds of questions about priorities for the next two years,” said Kevin Kasper, former assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, a former top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a leading Democratic health policy expert.
In announcing his pick, Biden said he was “very proud” of Califf’s career at Eli Lilly, where he has “built a legacy of science leadership at Lilly.” The company was “consistently recognized for its scientific prowess and ability to deliver product data to the public,” Biden said.
In 2014, Califf became the first pharmaceutical executive to lead the head of the National Cancer Institute, where he was praised by the government for modernizing the organization, while still striving to find new options for patients. He also helped the company begin trials for promising drugs that could revolutionize cancer treatment.
Biden said Thursday that he was “thrilled” to be able to promote Califf’s achievements to an agency that “has never done more to save lives and advance health.”
It’s unclear what position Califf, who will be the agency’s first pharma boss in years, will have in the White House’s sweeping goals to bring new treatments to market. But at Eli Lilly, he may have access to regulators and the company’s internal research to serve as a sounding board on potential ways to make more drugs available to more people more quickly.
Officials at the FDA did not respond to an email seeking comment.
While the top regulatory job at the agency is filled by a career civil servant, FDA Chair Gottlieb had added a political appointee to the top jobs of agency staffers.