Biden's Pick to Head FDA, Robert Califf, Says 'Price of Pharmaceuticals Is Way Too High'

President Joe Biden's pick to become commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Robert Califf, said the "price of pharmaceuticals is way too high" at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

During the hearing, Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders asked Califf a question related to Califf's relations with drug companies and his investments in pharmaceutical stocks. "What kind of comfort can you give to the American people when you have been so closely tied to the pharmaceutical industry yourself?" asked Sanders.

"I'm totally with you. The price of pharmaceuticals is way too high in this country," Califf responded.

Califf, who served as FDA commissioner before the end of the Obama administration, promised that he would work to make prescription drugs more affordable, use data to efficiently approve COVID treatments and tests, do a full review of the agency's management of opioid painkillers, continue the focus on tobacco regulation and combat medical misinformation on social media if he were confirmed.

He is a cardiologist with strong connections to the pharmaceutical industry and academic research centers. He worked at Duke University for over 35 years, creating a contract research organization that conducts studies for the world's largest drugmakers, until he became FDA commissioner.

Since his stint at the FDA, he has been employed at Google as a health policy adviser and has served as board director or adviser to more than half a dozen drug and biotech companies.

Califf said that his reasoning for returning to the FDA is public service, saying that he is "a 70-year-old person with nothing to gain." According to a federal disclosures form, Califf will resign from all his positions if confirmed.

Robert Califf, Nomination, FDA Commissioner
Robert Califf, the current nominee for Food and Drug Administration commissioner, promised that, if confirmed, he would work to make prescription drugs more affordable as well as use data to efficiently approve COVID treatments and tests, do a full review of the agency’s management of opioid painkillers, continue the focus on tobacco regulation and combat medical misinformation on social media. In this photo, Califf testifies before a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, December 14. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

After the hearing was over, Sanders announced he would oppose Califf's nomination. But Democratic Senator Patty Murray from Washington, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and ranking GOP Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina both said they would support him.

New Hampshire Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan pressed Califf on the need to change FDA prescribing information for opioids to better reflect the risk of addiction.

The FDA has been straining for months under a massive pandemic workload even as a series of scientific disputes—including the approval of a controversial Alzheimer's drug—have marred its public reputation. Califf's nomination by Biden last month was seen as a safe, steady choice to guide the agency, which hasn't had a permanent leader since January.

The FDA regulates the vaccines, drugs and tests used to combat COVID-19, on top of its normal duties regulating a swath of consumer goods and medicines, including prescription drugs, medical devices, tobacco and vaping products.

More than a year after authorizing the first COVID-19 vaccines, the FDA still faces a string of key decisions, including whether to expand booster shots to younger teens and children. Additionally, as researchers learn more about the omicron variant, the FDA will play a deciding role in whether the shots should be updated to target the strain.

FDA commissioners aren't typically involved in day-to-day scientific reviews, but they serve as the go-between from the agency's scientists to political decision-makers in the White House.

That relationship came to a head this fall when the FDA's two top vaccine reviewers publicly opposed the Biden administration's plan to offer boosters to all American adults. Both have since retired from the agency after careers spanning decades, giving Califf an opportunity to choose key replacements. Last month, the FDA ultimately signed off on boosters for all adults as COVID-19 cases surged again.

Robert Califf, Nomination, FDA Commissioner
Robert Califf is a cardiologist who previously held the position of commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration near the end of the Obama administration. In this photo, Califf awaits the start of a nomination hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on November 17, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Califf will also help choose a new chief for the FDA's tobacco center, which is weighing whether to ban e-cigarettes from Juul and other vaping companies due to their risks to teens.

Under Califf in 2016, the FDA added bolstered warnings to prescription opioids and began publicly scrutinizing all new opioid drug applications. But the agency has yet to implement many other steps recommended by experts, including an overall review of whether opioid painkillers pose more risks than benefits for society at large.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.