Big Pharma won big today when the Senate nearly unanimously approved Dr. Robert Califf as the next commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And not everyone is happy about it.

Califf was confirmed for the job in a vote of 89 to 4 after weeks of opposition from a handful of senators, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who had attempted to block the longtime cardiologist and academic researcher. [1]

Sanders blocked Califf in late January over his close ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Sanders pointed to a 2014 financial disclosure that showed Califf’s salary at Duke University was underwritten partly by funding from large drugmakers, including Eli Lilly and Merck, and which showed that pharmaceutical companies helped fund research studies he oversaw. In Sanders’ view, all of this proved that Califf could not impartially lead the nation’s health watchdog.

Sanders said at the time:

“Dr. Califf’s extensive ties to the pharmaceutical industry give me no reason to believe that he would make the FDA work for ordinary Americans, rather than just the CEOs of pharmaceutical companies.” [2]

During his confirmation hearing last fall, Califf acknowledged that the drug industry commonly funds such studies, but stated that that contracts protected the independence of investigators to publish research outcomes, regardless of the findings.

Said Califf:

“I think if you look at my record, I’ve never been a proponent of lowering standards. If anything, I’ve argued for raising them. I think I’ve been staunch in that regard.”

Califf said that drug companies, researchers, patients, and the government must work together, as uncomfortable as that may be, out of necessity.

He added:

“To advance, we must find common ground with industry and academia on the science without compromising [the] fundamental role of the FDA,” he said. [3]

Over the past several days, those opposed to Califf’s nomination desperately pleaded with their colleagues in speeches on the Senate floor to vote against him, arguing that the agency had approved far too many opioid painkillers and ignored its own panel experts, who had periodically advised against approving Califf to head the FDA.

Read: Need A Link Between Federal Reps And Big Pharma Companies? Here It Is.

Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a speech on Tuesday:

“The FDA stands for Food and Drug Administration, but over the last 20 years, it really stands for “fostering drug addiction. We have to have an honest discussion about the role that agency is playing.”

He added:

“It is not really a debate over Dr. Califf at all. This is a debate over the agency.”

Regardless of what or whom the debate concerned, their attempts to block Califf was to no avail.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said in a statement:

“Dr. Califf is the right person with the right experience to build on the FDA’s unsurpassed record of protecting public health while encouraging innovation and the introduction of new life-saving therapies to the market.”

Sources:

[1] The New York Times

[2] The Huffington Post

[3] The Washington Post

Robert Califf image credit: PABLO MARTINEZ/AP

Bernie Sanders image credit


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About Julie Fidler:
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Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.