Biden’s FDA chief nominee narrowly wins Senate confirmation


On Feb. 15, Robert Califf, MD, narrowly won Senate confirmation to once again serve as the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, overcoming protest votes from lawmakers about abortion and opioid issues.

FDA photo by Michael J. Ermarth

Robert M Califf_NC FDA commissioner

The Senate voted 50-46 in favor of Dr. Califf’s nomination. A cardiologist long affiliated with Duke University and a noted expert on clinical trials, Dr. Califf also led the FDA from February 2016 through January 2017.

In 2016, the Senate confirmed him as FDA chief in an 89-4 vote. At that time, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, and a few other senators said they were concerned that Dr. Califf’s links to the drug industry would hamper his ability to regulate drugmakers, particularly in terms of rules on prescription painkillers.

Sen. Manchin also objected to Dr. Califf’s second nomination as FDA commissioner, as did several fellow Democrats, including Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts. In a statement issued after the Feb. 15 vote, Sen. Markey said he has “consistently raised concerns about the FDA’s egregious mishandling of opioid approvals and its role in enabling the current opioid epidemic.”

“To date, the FDA still has not implemented many of the reforms necessary to ensure that it is fulfilling its role as our nation’s top pharmaceutical cop on the beat,” Sen. Markey said. “I have not received any real commitment from Dr. Califf to truly reform the FDA or to learn from the failures that fueled this public health crisis.”

This time, Dr. Califf lost support among Republican senators due to objections raised by groups seeking to end women’s access to abortion. Susan B. Anthony List and National Right to Life asked senators in a January letter to oppose Dr. Califf’s nomination, citing their objections to how the FDA handled reporting of adverse events from abortions by medication during Dr. Califf’s Tenure.

But some Republicans supported Califf in the Tuesday vote. Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania all voted in his favor.

On Feb. 14, Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, urged her colleagues to vote for Dr. Califf to give the FDA strong leadership to tackle urgent health needs such as the opioid crisis, youth tobacco use, antimicrobial resistance, and inequities in health care.

“At this critical moment, we need a trusted hand to lead the FDA,” she said in a floor speech. Dr. Califf’s previous service at the FDA and his years spent as a research scientist “give him the experience to take on this challenge.”

Separately, three former FDA commissioners on Feb. 15 published an opinion article that appeared in The Hill. Republican presidents nominated two of these former FDA chiefs: Scott Gottlieb, MD, and Mark McClellan, MD. The third, Margaret Hamburg, MD, was nominated by President Barack Obama, as was Dr. Califf for his first time as FDA chief.

There’s an urgent need for a confirmed leader at the FDA as the United States seeks to move beyond the pandemic, the former FDA chiefs wrote. The work ahead includes continued efforts with vaccines as well as efforts to bolster medical supply chains, they said.

Dr. Califf “knows how to advance the safe development and use of medical products and to bring a sound, science-based foundation to the FDA’s regulatory actions. Because of this, he has earned the confidence of FDA’s professional career staff, as well as a broad base of patient groups, academic experts, medical professionals, and public health organizations,” Dr. Gottlieb, Dr. Hamburg, and Dr. McClellan wrote.

The article also was signed by former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Andy Slavitt, who served in the Obama administration.


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