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Senate confirms Biden FDA pick Califf, despite objections to drug


The Senate narrowly confirmed Dr. Robert Califf as Food and Drug Administration commissioner on Tuesday, over objections to his pharmaceutical industry ties and concerns he would not act aggressively enough to stem the opioid epidemic.

The White House relied on six Republicans to move Califf across the finish line after five Democrats voted against President Joe Biden‘s nominee. The final vote was 50-46 for Califf.

“Dr. Califf is a supremely qualified nominee with bipartisan support,” said Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking Republican on the Senate health committee, before Tuesday’s vote.

Califf is a prominent cardiologist with extensive clinical research experience who served as FDA commissioner during President Barack Obama’s final year in office. Biden has said Califf will bring a steady hand to the FDA as the drug regulator faces urgent decisions on Covid vaccines, therapeutics and testing to fight the pandemic.

Califf’s confirmation comes more than a year after Biden took office. Dr. Janet Woodcock, a three-decade agency veteran, served as acting commissioner last year while the FDA gradually lowered the eligibility age for Pfizer‘s vaccine, authorized booster shots and approved two major antiviral drugs to treat Covid patients.

Though the White House reportedly considered Woodcock for the permanent role, she faced opposition on Capitol Hill. Woodcock led the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research when prescription opioids, including OxyContin, were approved in the 1990s.

In a December letter to the Senate health committee, six former FDA chiefs said the yearlong absence of a confirmed commissioner had complicated the drug regulator’s ability to fulfill its mandate. They endorsed Califf as someone with the experience to immediately play an effective leadership role in a time of crisis.

“Confirming Dr. Califf is critical not only for moving beyond the Covid-19 emergency, but also to help meet FDA’s many other major regulatory responsibilities where Senate confirmed leadership is essential for the nation’s wellbeing,” wrote Drs. Scott Gottlieb, Stephen Hahn and four other former commissioners.

However, Califf’s nomination was not without controversy, with opposition coming from several members of Biden’s own party.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has criticized Califf for owning millions of dollars in pharmaceutical stock, accusing him of participating in a revolving door between industry and the FDA.

Califf is as a senior advisor at Google Health and Verily, the life science arm of Alphabet. He received a salary of $2.7 million and up to $5 million in stock at Verily, according to an ethics disclosure form. Califf serves on the board of directors of Centessa Pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceutical company Cytokinetics. He has up to $5 million in unvested stock options at Centessa and owns hundreds of thousands of dollars in Cytokinetics stock. Califf also has stock in Amgen, Gilead Sciences and Bristol-Meyers Squibb.

Califf has said he will resign from…


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