Trump's CDC Director Has a History with the HIV Epidemic — and It's Not Great

We'll be seeing a lot more of Robert Redfield as the coronavirus epidemic spreads.
March 12, 2020, 1:45pm

Welcome to Name Drop, your guide to the faces you’ve suddenly started seeing all over the the news — or those you’re about to hear a lot more about.

You might have seen him lurking behind Vice President Pence during an update on the coronavirus or looking on as President Trump downplayed the epidemic, or getting grilled by Congress this week over the government's botched rollout of test kits. He’s Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency tasked with responding to the fast-moving outbreak.

He told the congressional hearing Wednesday that "Europe is the new China" in terms of how the virus was getting into the U.S. — hours before Trump announced the travel ban from Europe in his Oval Office address to the nation.

Redfield is no stranger to epidemics: He’s a virologist. When he was announced as the CDC director in 2018, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar cited his pioneering contributions to advancing our understanding of HIV/AIDS.

But some of those contributions were quite controversial.

As the U.S. Army’s chief AIDS researcher in the 1980s, Redfield supported mandatory HIV screening for the military, which kept recruits from serving if they tested positive and led to several active-duty troops being segregated — a practice Redfield defended at the time as necessary to control the AIDS epidemic.

In 1992, the Defense Department investigated Redfield after he was accused of overselling the effects of an experimental HIV vaccine he’d overseen. Though no evidence of misconduct was found, the vaccine ended up failing.

That same investigation criticized Redfield for having an inappropriately close relationship with a nonprofit founded by evangelical Christians that worked to contain the HIV/AIDS outbreak by advocating for abstinence before marriage, rather than passing out condoms — a view he says he’s since changed.

In his current job, he's taking heat for the CDC's slow response. The agency shipped its first test kits to state labs in February, a month after the world learned of the outbreak in China. But some of those kits were flawed, thanks to a contaminated reagent, leaving labs with inconclusive results.

As of March 9, the CDC and state health labs had conducted more than 8,500 tests, resulting in 423 confirmed cases. Compare that to the U.K., which at that time had a similar number of confirmed cases — 319 — but had managed to test nearly 25,000 people.

Those numbers are already out of date, but whatever they are by the time you read this, it’s likely that Trump will be telling us things are going fine.

That shouldn’t matter to the director of the CDC, whose first concern should be the health of Americans, not his boss’s ego. So it’s not exactly inspiring when, on Trump’s visit to the CDC in Atlanta last week, Redfield said the most important thing he wanted to say was … a thank you to Trump, for visiting the CDC.