The CDC's New Chief Was Accused of Fudging HIV Vaccine Research in the Early 1990s

Newly appointed CDC chief Robert Redfield, right, giving a speech during the Aid for AIDS My Hero Gala held in 2013.
Newly appointed CDC chief Robert Redfield, right, giving a speech during the Aid for AIDS My Hero Gala held in 2013.
Photo: Craig Baritt (Getty Images)

The track record of Trump appointees tasked with safeguarding the country’s public health has been, in the kindest sense, spotty. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the latest person tapped to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, is alleged to have engaged in research misconduct involving an experimental HIV vaccine back in the 1990s.

On Wednesday, Redfield was officially announced as the CDC chief, taking over from Brenda Fitzgerald, who departed in January following criticism of her purchases of tobacco stocks. But as rumors of his confirmation broke over the weekend, critics came out of the woodwork to attack Redfield’s ethics, particularly Washington Senator Patty Murray*, the ranking Democrat of the Senate health committee.

In a letter addressed to the President released Monday, Murray brought up a incident near the end of Redfield’s time as the lead scientist of a series of trials of an HIV vaccine at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.


In 1993, Redfield’s work was formally investigated by the Army after he allegedly misrepresented preliminary data on the vaccine’s effectiveness during an international conference, the letter notes. The Army cleared Redfield of explicit scientific misconduct, but found his analysis of the data was flawed and shouldn’t have been made public as early as it was. It also concluded that he was too chummy with a conservative AIDS lobbying group, known as Americans for Sound AIDS Policy, and criticized him for sharing his team’s work with them.

Following the investigation, and amid more criticism of the Army’s investigation, Redfield was transferred out of his unit to work solely in HIV treatment. Redfield would eventually leave the Army altogether, though he continued to work in the field.

Prior to his CDC appointment, Redfield was head of a clinical research unit at the University of Maryland School of Medicine investigating potential treatments for HIV and other chronic viral infections. He also oversaw a clinical program that treats more than 6,000 patients in the Baltimore–Washington community, and was part of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 2005 to 2009. The Army vaccine program, meanwhile, was ultimately shut down.

“Either he was egregiously sloppy with data or it was fabricated. It was somewhere on that spectrum, both of which were serious and raised questions about his trustworthiness,” former Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Hendrix, the current director of the division of clinical pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Kaiser Health News. Hendrix was the first person to report issues with Redfield’s data in the early 1990s.


In her letter, Murray also cited Redfield’s positions voiced during the earliest days of the HIV epidemic throughout the 1980s as evidence he shouldn’t have been appointed to lead the CDC. Contrary to many experts in the field, Redfield called for the universal screening of patients during routine check-ups, hospitalizations, and even when obtaining a marriage license. He also pushed for and defended the segregation of military members with HIV and the barring of recruits who tested positive for HIV.

“If you choose to move forward with his appointment despite these controversial positions, I will seek his assurances that he has changed his positions in these key areas and that he understands the importance of conducting research with integrity and independent from the influence of special interests,” Murray said in her letter.


Redfield has not immediately responded to a request for comment from Gizmodo addressed to his university email.

[Kaiser Health News]

*This post originally misspelled Senator Patty Murray’s name. We regret the error.


Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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Senator from Washington State is Patty Murray, not Murphey, not to be confused with Papa Murphy’s Pizza.