On paper, Redfield doesn't seem like a bad choice for running the CDC. Both parents were scientists at the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Anthony Fauci is working today. He worked for Walter Reed and did research mainly on infectious diseases. He's a real virologist who helps start a Research organization specifically devoted to the treatment of families of viruses that cause chronic disease in humans. That all sounds good.
Unfortunately … that's on paper. Very incomplete paper. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1989, when then Major Robert Redfield was in charge of an AIDS program in the military, he isolated soldiers suspected of having HIV in "AIDS hotels".
At Redfield's urging, the Department of Defense launched the world's largest mandatory HIV screening program in October 1985. Every recruit has been screened since then, and those who test positive are banned from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
Official policy was that HIV-positive soldiers could remain in the military. Unofficially, their status has been used as a basis for investigations that have pulled thousands off the service. Most of them received dishonorable layoffs, leaving them without benefit and affecting their ability to work outside the military. As the Financial Times reported in May, Redfield saw AIDS very much like Ronald Reagan. as "the product of an immoral society".
Since then, Redfield has praised the effectiveness of an AIDS treatment called VacSyn, claiming it reduced the viral load of HIV. It was not like that. And he ran a program to treat AIDS in Africa … a program that focused on sexual abstinence. Kaiser Health News notes that Redfield's career was filled with allegations of "research misconduct" and mistakes. Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter Laurie Garret wrote for CNN in 2018 calling Redfield, "a miserable choice ”to run the CDC. She later referred to Redfield as "about the worst person you can imagine running the CDC at this point. "
Redfield seemed to fulfill this prophecy in the first three months of 2020 when he insisted that the US not import an existing German test for COVID-19, but wait for the CDC to develop its own test. In February, the CDC distributed the first 800 copies of a test kit to state and local health laboratories. But these tests had errors in both the results they returned and the instructions. Instead of fixing that kit, the CDC inexplicably returned to first place and after a delay of weeks produced an entirely different kit, during which cases of COVID-19 circulated undetected across the country. Even as the tests began to drain, the lack led to testing criteria that meant testing only people who were almost certain to have COVID-19 … an almost worthless effort.
But when Redfield was rigid about the people he was supposed to help, he was infinitely flexible in responding to Trump. Redfield stood by while Trump announced that he understood the pandemic better than the doctors. Redfield stood by when Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the officer who warned back in February that COVID-19 would affect the lives of every American, was suffocated. He stood by when Trump accused the CDC, FDA, and NIH of being part of the "Deep State," claiming they were deliberately slowing down vaccine and treatment development. Redfield stood by when Trump repeatedly made false statements about CDC guidelines or public health statistics, and he's … still there.
Fauci supposedly "loathes" Redfield, and for good reason. When the White House wanted to come up with new testing guidelines with life-threatening advice, they eventually waited until Fauci was literally passed out during surgery. You didn't have to worry that Redfield was fighting against the insertion of unscientific information. You never worry about Redfield.
When former CDC director and respected epidemiologist William Foege Redfield sent a private letter in September urging him to publicly renounce Trump's lies, bad politics, and willful damage to the White House, there were undoubtedly the best Intentions.
I start every day by thinking about the terrible burden that you carry. I don't know what I would actually do in your position, but I know what I would like to do.
The first would be to face the truth. You and I both know:
Despite the spin attempts in the White House, this will go down as a colossal failure of this country's public health system. The greatest challenge in a century and we have let the country down. Future public health texts will use this as a lesson in how not to deal with a pandemic of infectious diseases.
The cause will be the incompetence and illogic of the White House program.
The White House has no hesitation in blaming and shaming the CDC, you and the state governors. They will hold you responsible for the disaster. In six months, they got the CDC to move from gold to tarnished brass.
Enemy is a global hero. He is the man who developed the strategy that led to the absolute eradication of smallpox in the 1970s – an effort often viewed as the greatest achievement in medical history. A disease that killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone has been removed from the planet. The list of awards and honors that follow his name is almost as large as the number of people he has saved.
And he tried to get Redfield to take whatever action he might have taken himself.
You could acknowledge in advance the tragedy of the bad reaction, apologize for what happened and your role in consent, set the stage for how the CDC would run the country now if there was no political interference, and give them the opportunity to: report such interference to a neutral ombudsman and assure them that you will defend their attempts to save this country. Do not be afraid of the fact that this has been an unacceptable burden on our nation. It's a slaughter, not just a political argument.
The letter is a call, not to weapons, but to the truth. A demand to accept failure and fight to do better. That is exactly what needs to be done. And it's heartbreaking in so many ways. But mainly because it clearly comes from a good man and goes to the wrong man.
The White House will of course respond with anger. But you will have it right on your side. Like Martin Luther, you can say: "Here I stand, I can't do anything else."
Foege sent this letter to Redfield in September. What has Redfield done since then?