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President Joe Biden’s choice to head the U.S. National Institutes of Health has hauled in hundreds of millions of dollars from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in recent years, raising concerns about whether she’d serve the public independently.
Dr. Monica Bertagnolli received $247 million in research funding from Pfizer from 2016 to 2021, according to disclosures filed Open Payments, a government-run program that collects and publishes data on payments from drug companies to doctors and others.
Bertagnolli has also received funding from other pharmaceutical companies like Janssen, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, and AstraZeneca, totaling more than $21 million since 2016.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a Democrat running for president, said the immense funding amounts illustrated the “revolving door” between well-connected scientists and government positions.
“So basically Joe Biden’s nominating Pfizer to run the National Institutes of Health. This is open, evil Big Pharma corruption. The science will be what Pfizer wants it to be,” former Republican congressional candidate Robby Starbuck said.
The White House and Pfizer did not respond to requests for comment.
Biden in a statement announcing Bertagnolli’s nomination said she “is a world-class physician-scientist whose vision and leadership will ensure NIH continues to be an engine of innovation to improve the health of the American people.”
Bertagnolli became director of the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in 2022. Before that, she chaired the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, which develops and carries out clinical trials for potential cancer treatments.
Bertagnolli, who did not return an inquiry, previously told the Daily Signal that the funds she’s listed as receiving were actually contracts between the pharmaceutical companies and the alliance.
“All industry contracts were used by the Alliance’s 3,000+ member clinical trials group to conduct cancer clinical trials. Importantly, virtually all of the funding from Pfizer was for a single large international breast cancer clinical trial—a very high $$ total because it enrolled over 6,000 patients over quite a number of countries,” Bertagnolli said at the time. “The funding was distributed across many different health care institutions—both academic and community—to conduct the trial. Alliance overall does not have more involvement with one industry partner over another—it’s just that this one Pfizer trial was very large and therefore very expensive.”
The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will take up Bertagnolli’s nomination.
Senators have blocked some of Biden’s nominees over conflict of interest concerns.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the panel, told the Washington Post this month that he would oppose any nominated health experts who were not prepared to “stand up and fight” the drug industry. Sanders said in a letter to Biden that he voted against Dr. Robert Califf, picked to head the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “because of his unwillingness to stand up to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry.”
The committee in total voted 13–8 to advance the nomination of Califf and the full Senate confirmed him in a 50–46 vote.
Sanders and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), the ranking member of the panel, did not respond to requests for comment.
The nomination was praised by some, including Dr. Clifford Hudis, CEO of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
“Her experience in all aspects of medical research, clinical care, and commitment to advancing science, as well as her own experience as a patient, make her an ideal leader for the nation’s top federal medical research agency at this exciting time in science,” he said in a statement.
Others said the doctor would need to rebuild trust in an agency that has spread misinformation about the origins of COVID-19 and other matters during the pandemic, in addition to withholding information from members of Congress.
“I congratulate Dr. Bertagnolli on her nomination. If confirmed, she has an opportunity to begin rebuilding public trust in NIH so it can effectively conduct important and potentially life-saving research,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.
Dr. Francis Collins, the last Senate-confirmed NIH director, exited the agency in late 2021. Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of his top deputies, spread the lie that the NIH did not fund gain of function research at the Chinese laboratory situated in the city where the first COVID-19 cases appeared. They also downplayed natural immunity while hyping the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
Fauci, who left the government around the end of 2022, told the Post that he recommended Bertagnolli as the next NIH director.
“She’s got the kind of personality that I think is important for the director of NIH,” Fauci said. “She’s firm in her principles, but she is very likable, easy to get along with, people person.”
Bertagnolli wrote on Twitter, after Fauci announced he was stepping down, that “no words can sufficiently capture Dr. Fauci’s impact on our nation’s public health.”