NOTE: This blog is a work in progress and may be updated with new facts.
The White House is trial-ballooning Dr. Robert Califf as its potential nominee for Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Other names bubbling up in the press include Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former mid-level FDA appointee and head of Maryland’s public health system, and the utterly unacceptable Michelle McMurry-Heath, head of the largest biotechnology lobbying group on earth.
Revolving Door Project is still reviewing Dr. Califf’s record, but what we’ve found so far indicates he would not be much better than McMurry-Heath. Like her, Califf coordinates lobbying for major corporations — in his case, for Big Tech giants eager to get into the medical sector (and get into patients’ medical data.) This carries unique risks in the middle of a pandemic which is exacerbated by far-right anti-vaccine conspiracies, since many of these same conspiracists also deeply distrust Big Tech.
Initially, Dr. Califf was described in the media — and presumably, by the media’s White House sources — as the head of a medical research institute at Duke University. Whoever is feeding that line is not being forthright. In September 2019, Califf stepped down from his Duke position for a full-time job at Google, running the “policy” and “strategy” teams (translation: the lobbying teams) for Google Health and an Alphabet spin-off health company, Verily Life Sciences. His continuing work at Duke’s Clinical Research Institute is also tied up in Alphabet’s interests. Verily regularly conducts research at the institute, and sometimes purchases medical startups created by Duke students and researchers. Notably, over 60 percent of the Clinical Research Institute’s funding comes from corporate sources.
But Califf’s Alphabet ties are even more troubling. Google Health is already facing down a lawsuit for its lax data privacy and anonymization practices. And Verily Life Sciences went through a slew of C-Suite changes last year as it prepares for an IPO. It would obviously improve Verily’s prospects on the markets if everyone knows they have a friend in charge of the agency approving their products.
And Dr. Califf has a long history of playing politics and defanging regulators on behalf of the medical industry. He was literally seen by close observers as “too linked to the industry” to be FDA Commissioner during the Obama administration. Before the Obama administration, he ran a “regulatory consulting” firm for healthcare companies looking to influence FDA decisions. ‘Regulatory consulting’ is D.C.-speak for shadow lobbying, activity which just barely skirts the legal definition of lobbying and thus doesn’t need to be disclosed in detail.
Califf’s cozy relationship with the pharmaceutical companies appears to have clouded his judgement in dangerous ways. He defended Merck when it came under fire over Vioxx, a painkiller which reportedly caused 88,000 heart attacks, a problem which it appears that Merck should have known about but marketed Vioxx anyway. Califf also played a key role in the Duke drug trial of the blood thinner, Xarelto. He supported the drug despite medical experts’ objections to Xarelto’s approval and 379 subsequent deaths. All of this prompted severe pushback to his 2015 nomination for FDA Commissioner from Senate progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Unsurprisingly, both Merck and Johnson & Johnson, who manufactured Xarelto, funded the science institute Califf ran at Duke University. We conclude that Califf’s loyalties lie with his Big Pharma buddies rather than people in need of safe accessible medication.
The bottom line is that Califf cannot be immediately trusted to act in the public’s interest. This is extremely dangerous for any FDA Commissioner nominee, but especially in the middle of a pandemic. Many far-right anti-vaccination figures also loathe Big Tech, and may seize on Califf’s Google ties to further reinforce conspiracies and distrust of the Biden administration. This is dangerous not just for these individuals’ own health, but for the health of all people: the longer there are unvaccinated arms, the more opportunities COVID-19 has to mutate.
In short, there’s a lot to be skeptical of, and a lot of reasons for Biden not to pick Dr. Califf. There are plenty of other, highly qualified doctors and leaders who don’t bring his corporate ties to this most crucial agency.