Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, resigned yesterday. The resignation was triggered by a report that she had purchased shares in a tobacco company, after she was already director, causing yet another potential conflict of interest. The CDC is a leading federal agency in preventing tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases. The documents the report was based on were obtained as a result of a FOIA request by Politico.
Previously, Fitzgerald was also criticized for not divesting her holdings in several other companies, such has pharmaceutical giant Merck and health insurance provider Humana. On several occasions she had to recuse herself from agency activities and congressional testimony due to “complex financial interests.” DHHS Secretary Alex Azar said that he accepted Fitzgerald’s resignation because she was unable to divest from those conflicts of interest “in a definitive time period.” Fitzgerald was legally obligated to maintain her investments in health information technology and cancer detection due to various shareholder agreements.
Last August, one day after purchasing stock in Japan Tobacco, Fitzgerald toured the CDC’s tobacco lab. That facility studies the harmful health effects of tobacco use. She sold that stock in late October, months into her term as director. An HHS spokesperson released a statement claiming that this stock purchase was handled by Fitzgerald’s financial manager.
The resignation came as a surprise for the agency. Fitzgerald was schedule to give a key note address tomorrow at the annual meeting of the International Society for Disease Surveillance. The resignation could be destabilizing for the CDC, which is currently stretched thin on several projects and facing potential budget cuts from the Trump administration. It is the main agency responding to this year’s flu season, which is the worst in about a decade, and CDC personnel are still involved in public health efforts in the aftermath of last year’s hurricane season.
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