Joe Manchin Says Robert Califf as FDA Commissioner Will 'Take Us Backwards, Not Forward'

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin opposed Dr. Robert Califf's recent nomination as Food and Drug Administration commissioner, saying Califf would "take us backwards, not forward."

Califf, 70, a cardiologist and clinical trial specialist, previously worked as FDA commissioner for the last 11 months of Barack Obama's second term. Manchin also voted against his confirmation in 2016.

Before that, Califf worked as the deputy commissioner of the FDA's medical products and tobacco office, CNBC reported. He also was a researcher at Duke University for 35 years, helping design studies for many of the world's biggest drugmakers.

He worked as a policy adviser to Google along with his ongoing work at Duke after leaving the government.

According to The Associated Press, Manchin called for a change in "the culture at the FDA" while opposing Califf's nomination in a statement Friday.

The White House expects no issues concerning Manchin's opposition to Califf.

Press secretary Jen Psaki said, "We feel he's a qualified person who has the exact experience for this moment."

"As the FDA considers many consequential decisions around vaccine approvals and more, it is mission critical that we have a steady, independent hand to guide the FDA," President Joe Biden said in a statement that announced his decision.

Califf would oversee decisions on COVID vaccines, as well as a plethora of other issues, like the regulation of electronic cigarettes and effectiveness standards for prescription drugs if he's confirmed by the Senate. He would be the first FDA commissioner to return to the position for a second time since the 1940s.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Dr. Robert Califf, Joe Manchin, Nomination
In this file photo, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf speaks at a news conference in Washington, May 5, 2016. Senator Joe Manchin opposed his recent nomination from President Joe Biden. Andrew Harnik/AP Photo, File

Califf faced some concerns over his drug industry connections in 2016, but he was ultimately confirmed by an overwhelming 89-4 Senate vote.

"Rob is a relatively safe choice because he is known in Washington and is widely respected," said Wayne Pines, a former FDA associate commissioner who has helped several commissioners through the confirmation process. "He will have broad support from FDA stakeholders."

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

Dr. Janet Woodcock, the agency's longtime drug director, has been serving as acting commissioner since January. For months she was expected to be tapped for the permanent post, but her nomination ran into pushback from key Democratic lawmakers, including Manchin, over the handling of opioid prescription painkillers during her 30-plus years at the agency.

The White House faced a legal deadline of mid-November to nominate a permanent commissioner or name another acting commissioner.

Califf arrived at the FDA in 2015 determined to modernize how the agency reviewed drug and device study data. But his brief time as commissioner was dominated by unrelated pharmaceutical controversies, including surging opioid addiction and overdoses.

He was among the first FDA officials to publicly acknowledge missteps in the agency's oversight of painkillers including OxyContin, which is widely blamed for sparking the ongoing opioid epidemic, now driven by heroin and fentanyl.

"If addiction to opioids and misuse of opioids is an enemy, then we at the FDA — like every other part of society — underestimated the tenacity of the enemy," Califf told The Associated Press in a 2016 interview. "So we've got to adjust."

The powerful pharmaceutical and medical device lobbying groups issued strong statements of support Friday, as did a number of physician and patient groups.

Califf has worked as a consultant for major drugmakers including Eli Lilly and Merck & Co., and he sits on the board of two smaller biotech companies.

Federal ethics rules do not require government officials to sell all their investments, but they must recuse themselves from matters that could affect those investments. As part of the vetting process, FDA nominees typically disclose and sell stocks, funds and other investments that could pose a financial conflict of interest.

FDA watchers said Califf had several key advantages over other candidates vetted for the job, several of whom would have faced more scrutiny in the Senate.

"He knows how the FDA works, and he avoided making any outrageous decisions as commissioner," said Diana Zuckerman of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research. "Those are essential if the FDA is going to regain the public trust."

His first tasks would include easing burnout and boosting morale among the FDA's 18,000 employees. The agency's medical reviewers have been straining for months under a crushing coronavirus pandemic workload, while the agency's reputation for scientific independence has been battered by a public controversies.

Two congressional committees are investigating the agency's June approval of the much-debated Alzheimer's drug Aduhelm against the recommendation of its outside experts, three of whom resigned over the decision. Then in September, two top FDA vaccine regulators announced they would leave the agency after disagreeing with the Biden administration plan to make COVID-19 vaccines boosters widely available.

In recent weeks the FDA has authorized extra doses of all three COVID-19 vaccines for certain groups, though not as broadly as Biden originally proposed. Pfizer has recently applied to expand eligibility for its booster to all adults, a request the FDA is expected to grant.

The latest FDA troubles followed months of turmoil between the agency and the White House under former President Donald Trump, who falsely accused the agency of deliberately slowing its review of COVID-19 vaccines to sway the presidential election.

Joe Manchin, Dr. Robert Califf, FDA
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) walks after a vote on Capitol Hill on November 4, 2021 in Washington, DC. Manchin opposed Dr. Robert's Califf's nomination as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner, calling instead for a change in the culture at the FDA. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images