During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of new focus on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a U.S. government agency with about 11,000 employees (compared to the FDA‘s 18,000 employees).
Still, few are aware of the existence of the CDC Foundation, a separate, nonprofit organization, established by Congress in 1992 to seek private-sector donations and public-private partnerships.
To those concerned about conflicts of interest, “public-private partnerships,” which mix taxpayer funds with industry’s, are likely the biggest red flags. To avoid such conflicts the CDC foundation says it relies “on CDC’s governance and policies and its high standards of scientific integrity to guide every partnership we build,” and that projects are given a thorough review and approval.
The CDC Foundation sounds well-funded. According to Netsuite, an Oracle website, Wells Fargo, SC Johnson, a consumer product manufacturer, and Kaiser Permanente each donated one million dollars in 2020 and Facebook pledged a $10 million match in donations. Other donors include 3M, Bayer and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Foundation has a close relationship with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports Netsuite.
But the hefty donations have not fully escaped Congress’ eye. In 2018, members of the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee, a congressional spending panel, had serious questions about the way the CDC Foundation (as well as the NIH foundation) disclosed donors and donations according to Science and sought more information and explanations from the foundations. “[I]t’s not OK to hide the identity of donors who have attached strings to their gift by labeling them as ‘anonymous,'” the lawmakers said in response to many anonymous givers.
Conflicts of Interest
Concerns about such gifts and quid pro quos between industry donors and the CDC came to a head in 2017 when the newly appointed CDC director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, was found to have accepted $1 million over a six-year period from soft drink maker Coca-Cola while serving as health commissioner of Georgia. The funding was for an anti “obesity” campaign which struck many as hypocritical. The CDC was later sued by the pro-transparency group, U.S. Right to Know, for refusing to reveal correspondence between agency officials and Coca-Cola employees.
The following year, the NIH grappled with similar conflicts of interest when a planned $100-million study on the effects of alcohol consumption was revealed to be funded by alcohol makers and a planned study on opioid dependency backed by drug makers.
The Checkered Past of CDC Directors
Some may remember that Dr. Fitzgerald, who had accepted Coca-Cola money, was forced to resign from the CDC after only six months because of tobacco stocks she had bought. But she is not the only CDC director whose actions have raised questions. Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC director who preceded Dr. Fitzgerald, serving from 2009 was 2017, was also tarnished with an apparent conflict of interest according to Minnpost.
During a 2015 outbreak of influenza, Dr. Frieden told news reporters that the CDC had “compelling evidence” that the neuraminidase inhibitor Tamiflu (oseltamivir) was effective for flu if used early. At the time the CDC was conducting an awareness campaign called “Take 3” – telling the public to get a flu vaccine, a drug like Tamiflu, and wash their hands carefully to protect against flu.
Why was his promotion of Tamiflu a likely conflict of interest? All four authors of a Lancet study on which Dr. Frieden based his support and recommendation had “received speaker’s or consultancy fees, grants or contracts from either Roche, the company that makes and sells Tamiflu, or Gilead, the company that holds the patent to the drug,” reported Minnpost. Nor had the FDA even found the drug effective reported the BMJ. The Epoch Times reported on Tamiflu’s potential risks in October.
In a brazen example of the government/industry revolving door, Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, who preceded Dr. Frieden as CDC Director and led vaccine efforts against the H5N1 avian influenza during her 2002 through 2009 tenure, left the CDC to become president of Merck Vaccines the same year she left the government.
Even Dr. Robert Redfield who served as CDC Director until 2021 was under an ethical cloud. According to the New York Times he was accused of misrepresenting experimental HIV vaccine data and subsequent vaccine data he published needed corrections. Either Dr. Redfield “was egregiously sloppy with data or it was fabricated,” said Col. Craig Hendrix, MD, then director of the division of clinical pharmacology at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. I have this PDF
Who is the Government Serving?
There is no question that vetting of government public health leaders needs to improve and non-breachable firewalls between industry players and those charged with regulating them need to be established. Put in its simplest terms, the drugs and treatments recommended by the FDA and CDC may be better for drug makers than us!
Clearly Congress needs to legislate the murky government/industry relationships and the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee’s investigation of anonymous donors is a good beginning.