As the coronavirus death toll in the US tops 107,000, questions have intensified over what could have been done to avoid such a catastrophic loss of life. Beyond criticism of President Donald Trump himself, scrutiny has fallen particularly hard on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its embattled director, Dr. Robert Redfield, whom Trump appointed to the job in 2018.
In a congressional hearing on Thursday, lawmakers grilled Redfield over the CDC’s response to the pandemic, including what is still seen as the agency’s cardinal sin: The faulty test kits it produced early this year that cost the public precious time as the virus spread unchecked around the country.
While acknowledging some CDC shortcomings on Thursday, Redfield pushed back on criticism of the agency’s coronavirus test. He pointed out that the test’s early availability required blood samples to be sent to the CDC, that it was developed relatively quickly, and that within five weeks, problems had been fixed and tests were available to public health labs.
“There was never a moment in this nation when any health department couldn’t get the test,” Redfield said.
Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican congresswoman from Washington, immediately pushed back on Redfield. Health labs in her state, an early epicenter of the outbreak, could not get the test when they needed it, she argued, and those crucial weeks in January and February were a missed opportunity to “get ahead of the virus.”
“That was our lead time,” Beutler said.
That exchange on Thursday offers a window into the trouble Redfield has had in navigating the delicate politics of the pandemic. And it reinforced why his leadership has come under fire recently.
In interviews with numerous public health experts, including eight current CDC officials, many said they are disillusioned by Redfield, telling CNN he’s failed to push back against White House efforts to sideline the CDC and politicize its science.
While sources consistently described Redfield as a respected doctor, they also view him as a relatively ineffectual public health leader at a time of pandemic, and a pawn of the President’s political agenda.
“A major problem for our agency is lack of leadership,” said one CDC official who spoke about Redfield on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “He’s a very nice guy, but I think he was put in place to serve a political purpose, not to lead an agency.”
Inside the CDC, confidence in Redfield has deteriorated amid the rising death toll. CDC sources who spoke to CNN said they are deeply frustrated over what they say has been an effort to freeze out the agency from decision-making, and cut it off from directly addressing the public. Tensions have risen between the White House and the Atlanta-based public health agency, with some CDC officials blaming Redfield for not doing more to advocate for the agency’s own authority.
This is not the first time Redfield has been at the heart of a controversy over the government’s response to a virus epidemic. In the early 1990s, Redfield, then one of the Army’s top AIDS researchers, was at the center of a scandal over a purported HIV vaccine. Allegations that Redfield oversold data and cherry-picked results sparked an internal Army investigation into his work.
The Army ultimately did not charge Redfield with scientific misconduct. But interviews with former colleagues with direct knowledge of the investigation, and a review of internal documents suggest Redfield knew he was misrepresenting the data behind the vaccine, even as he publicly touted its results— an effort that ultimately helped garner millions in federal funds for further testing.
Redfield was also found to be in violation of Army code over his relationship with a conservative AIDS nonprofit run by a prominent evangelical activist who has promoted abstinence-only solutions to the disease .
In the end, the vaccine treatment did not pan out. Redfield has previously said that he stands by his work.
Though this incident received some coverage around the time of Redfield’s 2018 selection to head the CDC, a fresh examination reveals parallels to Redfield’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. While Redfield has plenty of defenders, many of whom describe him as a brilliant, compassionate scientist, more than a dozen of the nation’s former and current top health officials who worked with him over the past three decades tell CNN that Redfield’s career has been marked by a pattern of bad leadership, including bullying and putting politics ahead of data.
In response to those allegations, the CDC said in a statement to CNN: “This is not true and is wholly inconsistent with his disposition and leadership style. In scientific terms, this is not in his DNA.”
In a rare interview with reporters on Friday, Redfield defended the CDC’s response to the virus, saying it was “never blind” to its early spread in the US.
After a three-month hiatus, the CDC now plans to resume its own regular briefings.
Separately, in a statement to CNN, Redfield said he would “always support and promote the CDC’s work as we combat this pandemic,” and that “From the very beginning, our team at the CDC has worked around the clock to research this disease, develop tests, therapeutics, and vaccines, educate the public, and provide support to state, local, tribal, and territorial health departments.”
A potential AIDS breakthrough
By the time he arrived in Amsterdam in July 1992 for the International AIDS Conference, Lt. Col. Robert Redfield was considered a leading mind in the world of HIV/AIDS research. The son of two scientists at the National Institutes of Health, Redfield had gone from Georgetown Medical School into a career at the prestigious Walter Reed Army Medical Center .
While much of the early work on AIDS focused solely on the virus within the homosexual community, Redfield was one of the first researchers to present findings that HIV was also transmitted heterosexually. At a time when those with HIV/AIDS were stigmatized, Redfield had a reputation for being open and accepting of his patients.
“Bob, I think, did more than any one person I know to dispel the fear and biases against HIV infected people at the time,” one former colleague of Redfield’s told CNN.
From the stage that July, Redfield presented what amounted to a potential breakthrough at the height of the AIDS epidemic: A vaccine treatment called gp-160 that he had been testing as a treatment at Walter Reed showed a stabilization or significant reduction in the amount of HIV blood cells in patients.
Recollections of how Redfield’s data was received by the audience vary among those present that day. While some say it was viewed as revolutionary, others remember there being a palpable sense of skepticism inside the room.
Among the skeptics in the audience that day was Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the nation’s foremost AIDS expert at the time. In an interview in Science magazine published on July 31, 1992, Fauci poured cold water on Redfield’s work, and questioned how much the vaccine truly decreased the overall amount of HIV in a patient’s body.
Nonetheless, Redfield’s work was touted as a major development, and a potential coup for the team of Army scientists researching AIDS. At a time when much of the medical world was searching for an effective HIV treatment, the US Army appeared to have made a breakthrough. Not only could it save countless lives, an effective treatment would likely come with a hefty financial reward, and trigger millions of dollars in medical research funding. Indeed, that fall, Redfield’s findings garnered his unit at Walter Reed $20 million in funding from Congress for continued testing.
The origins of an investigation
But behind closed doors, a scandal was unfolding. Roughly a week after giving his presentation in Amsterdam, Redfield was confronted by colleagues who claimed the data he had presented was misleading. During a meeting at a Walter Reed facility in Rockville, Maryland, according to a researcher in the room, a heated discussion broke out when a researcher working under Redfield, Army Maj. Dan Lucey, argued that what Redfield had presented in Amsterdam didn’t match the data.
According to a source familiar with the meeting, Redfield angrily defended his work. Also present at the meeting was Redfield’s research assistant at the time, Dr. Deborah Birx. Redfield had brought Birx over to his lab in 1988, shortly before beginning the vaccine treatment for HIV. According to their peers at the time, they were seen as a unit, working in tandem on the gp-160 testing.
Birx’s statements to Army investigators later would support this view as she defended Redfield’s work and questioned the motives of his accusers.
After the meeting, Redfield’s superior Col. Don Burke asked a civilian statistician to review Redfield’s data. William McCarthy, a statistician at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, immediately found problems.
According to a statement McCarthy made to Army investigators in December 1992, a civilian researcher named Marianne Vahey had told him that it was she, not Redfield, who had done the statistical analysis on the gp-160 study. McCarthy said that Vahey told him that when she briefed Redfield before his trip to Amsterdam, she told him there were no significant findings from the study.
Vahey confirmed this account in her statement to investigators.
Meanwhile in Texas, an Air Force doctor named Craig Hendrix started getting calls from associates at Walter Reed who were concerned about Redfield’s findings. Hendrix, who was then Director of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Unit on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, decided to run the numbers himself. The results did not match Redfield’s.
Hendrix eventually traveled to Maryland and in a meeting that September at Walter Reed, both he and McCarthy watched as Redfield fell on his sword. He admitted to making mistakes in his analysis and delivering misleading presentations, according to two sources in the room, and agreed that the record should be corrected. Hendrix was so satisfied with the outcome of the meeting, that he called Redfield the following day to thank him—noting that he was glad they worked at a place where these things could be candidly discussed.
A month later though, Redfield again presented the overstated data—this time to an AIDS conference in Anaheim, California, where Hendrix was in the audience.
Hendrix fired off a scathing letter to Burke, demanding a full outside investigation and calling for Redfield to be censured for “potential scientific misconduct,” and to “publicly correct the record in a medium suitable for widespread dissemination.”
Though it did open an informal investigation, the Army conducted it internally and did not involve other branches of the military. CNN reviewed more than 100 pages of documents produced by the 8-month investigation, including statements from more than a dozen witnesses, many of whom gave conflicting accounts of what happened. Overall, the documents paint a picture of a toxic work environment inside the research unit of Walter Reed, filled with distrust and competing factions .
In October 1992, even as the investigation was ongoing, Congress appropriated $20 million for large scale, Phase III testing of gp-160, Redfield’s study. According to a source familiar, Col. Burke tried to refuse the funding, in hopes of preventing more scrutiny on his elite Army researching unit. But it was too late.
After the investigation
Though Redfield was not charged with misconduct, the Army investigation did find that he had violated Army code through an improper relationship with Americans for Sound AIDS Policy (ASAP), a conservative organization run by evangelical activist Shepherd Smith. The Army determined the group had received scientific information from Walter Reed “to a degree that is inappropriate” and that it appeared to be an outlet “for marketing LTC Redfield’s research.”
Redfield served on ASAP’s “Science Advisory Board,” as did Birx. Redfield had also written a foreword for Smith’s 1990 book, “Christians in the Age of AIDS,” in which he “denounced distribution of sterile needles to drug users and condoms to sexually active adults, and described anti-discrimination programs as the efforts of “false prophets.”
In a statement to Army investigators, one of Redfield’s researchers described getting a call from Smith after Redfield was first accused of presenting bad data. The researcher said Smith stressed the importance of the gp-160 trial. More startling to this person though, was Smith’s deep knowledge of the inner workings of the Watler Reed lab.
Smith, who had neither a scientific background nor a role at Walter Reed, testified alongside Burke and Redfield in 1992 to lobby Congress for more money for military research.
The CDC says Smith has no role at the agency. In a statement to CNN, the agency also said that as CDC Director and during his long career fighting AIDS, Redfield “has been a strong advocate for syringe services programs (SSPs),” and that “In the 1980s, there were not yet data supporting SSPs as having a public health benefit.”
The CDC also said that Redfield has clarified his views on condom use and HIV, stating: “While Dr. Redfield has long contended that condoms can reduce the risk of HIV transmission, he has also stressed that condoms do not eliminate the risk of transmission of HIV and other STDs.”
In 1994, the Public Citizen advocacy group called for a Congressional investigation into Redfield’s conduct after obtaining internal memos and documents on the investigation.
Redfield left the lab at Walter Reed shortly thereafter. One source tells CNN that the atmosphere at the lab had grown hostile, with Redfield blaming Col. Burke for not scrapping the investigation. The tensions caused factions within the staff, all while the lab was still under the microscope over the investigation.
After retiring from the Army in 1996, Redfield co-founded the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology and was the Chief of Infectious Diseases and Vice Chair of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. For the next two decades, Redfield continued his work on AIDS research. According to its website, his institute received millions of dollars in grants to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an organization run at the time by Dr. Birx.
Leading the CDC
It’s not entirely clear how Redfield landed on the short list of people to replace Trump’s first CDC director, Brenda Fitzgerald who resigned in January 2018 after Politico reported her purchase of tobacco stock. In 2018, Shepherd Smith told Kaiser Health News, he “enthusiastically urged administration officials to pick his longtime friend and associate” to lead the CDC.
Several former collaborators and colleagues of Redfield told CNN that they did not think he was a good fit for the CDC job, though none seemed surprised that he would join the Trump administration as his conservative views align with the President’s agenda.
“I was shocked when he was selected to run the CDC,” one former contemporary told CNN. “But it all makes sense when you look at the political agendas of this administration.”
Asked specifically how Dr. Redfield got on the President’s radar, one senior CDC official told CNN that Redfield has “always been on the list because he really wanted the job. He’s an evangelical Christian and he has links to a lot of people [in the administration] who knew that he wanted the job.”
This person also suspects the White House knew that in Redfield it was getting a leader who would not challenge authority.
“In an administration that does not value science and does not want strong leadership at the CDC, leaders who might offer opinions and move in directions that are different than the administration, you’re not allowed to do that.”
The job of CDC Director does not require Senate confirmation and therefore, much of Redfield’s past has remained largely out of the public eye, much like Redfield himself, who’s been overshadowed by other members of President Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force—like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx.
In a statement to CNN, US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Redfield “has been a key scientific guide for the President and his Administration, a trusted source for the American people, and a closely engaged partner of state and local governments.”
Michael Caputo, Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at HHS, told CNN, that President Trump has “made it clear he values Dr. Redfield’s honorable service to this nation.”
Still, CDC officials who spoke to CNN describe being caught in a chain of decision making that goes on for days or weeks. In past outbreaks, sources say the CDC would have been given more freedom to make decisions at much lower levels. Now, decisions are run up the chain for approval.
“CDC has relationships with states, tribes and localities. That’s what we do – we provide guidance to states and partners, and then suddenly communication had to go through the VP’s office,” said one CDC staffer. “It was like a balloon that deflated. Our message had to be whitewashed.”
There is also a sense among CDC officials that Redfield hasn’t defended his own people. Many point to the case of Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Initially, Messonnier was the agency’s chief spokesperson on the virus and the most prominent voice during regular coronavirus press briefings early in the year. A well-respected career public servant, Messonnier made waves in late February when she gave a dire warning about the impact the virus could have on the US, saying that “disruption to everyday life may be severe.”
At the time, there were only a relative handful of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US. Messonnier’s ominous message helped fuel what was then a crashing stock market, and conflicted with the President’s efforts to downplay the threat of the virus.
Since then, Messonnier has disappeared from the public eye and returned full-time to her role at the CDC’s immunization center. Veteran staffers speculated to CNN that Messonnier was “sidelined” by Trump and felt Redfield could have done more to shield her.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Redfield denied that Messonnier had been sidelined and said she was playing a key role in the development of a vaccine.
Dr. Pierre Rollin, who retired from the CDC in 2019 as epidemiology team lead of the viral special pathogens branch, said that under Redfield, the CDC has been “handicapped” and he lamented that Redfield is not as visible as some of his predecessors. In 2018, Rollin worked with Redfield in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during an Ebola response, and remembers Redfield taking a hands-off approach, though he said Redfield was respectful of CDC staffers working in the field. That style, Rollin said, has translated to Redfield’s leadership of the CDC, where he is not as visible as some of his predecessors.
“From the outside, we don’t see him, we don’t hear him, he often doesn’t even come to the White House press conference.” And when he does, Rollin said, “it’s usually as wallpaper, silent.”