Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, abruptly resigned from her post on Wednesday, after a report from Politico revealed that she had purchased shares in a tobacco company just one month after being charged to lead the nation’s top public health agency.
Fitzgerald was appointed to head the CDC by President Donald J. Trump last July. According to records obtained by Politico, the following month, she bought between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of stocks in Japan Tobacco Inc., which sells products in the U.S. under brand names including Camel and Winston. The documents also show that Fitzgerald made investments in pharmaceutical giants including Bayer and Merck & Co.
For months, Fitzgerald had been criticized for her inability to get rid of various financial holdings that interfered with her role at the CDC. During her seven-month tenure, she repeatedly recused herself from testifying before lawmakers regarding the opioid crisis and other topics, and had to avoid work related to cancer detection and health information technology.
Long before assuming the role of CDC director, Fitzgerald served as the commissioner for the Georgia Department of Public Health. Though she made smoking cessation one of her top priorities, she simultaneously owned stock in five tobacco companies during that time. (According to the CDC, smoking is leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.)
Sources within the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC said DHHS Secretary Alex Azar — who was sworn in on Monday — had pledged to take a stand against ethical issues within the agency. Fitzgerald’s resignation comes four months after former DHHS head Tom Price left in response to criticism regarding his use of taxpayer-dollars to pay for private charter flights.
Also in the news:
• Following a three-year drought, the worst in over a century, officials in Cape Town, South Africa are anticipating that the city will run completely dry within the next three months. If that happens — at a point dubbed “Day Zero” — residents will have their water supplies shut off and be forced to cue for rations. As dams in the landlocked country of Lesotho get dangerously low, the crisis may soon spread to Johannesburg and the surrounding province. And as seems evident by similar struggles in Iran and Brazil, climate change is only likely to make things worse. (New York Times)
• Scientists this week urged the British government to require the addition of folic acid in flour — a practice adopted by the United States and some 80 other countries decades ago — following a new study by Queen Mary University of London showing that the U.K. had based its decision on faulty research. Inadequate levels of folic acid in pregnant women have been linked to severe birth defects, including spina bifada, and researchers say adding the compound to flour would prevent thousands of such cases from occurring. So far the British government has remained non-committal about any policy changes. (The Telegraph)
• A research team from Egypt’s Mansoura University discovered a new species of dinosaur, which provides sought-after insight into the animals’ history on the African continent. The new find, dubbed Mansourasaurus shahinae, lived during the Late Cretaceous Period, about 80 million years ago. Unearthed in the Egyptian desert, the dinosaur’s fossils reveal it to be a plant-eater belonging to the Titanosauria group of sauropods, characterized by long necks and tails, thick legs, and relatively small heads. Mansourasaurus shahinae is the only sauropod species to be found in North Africa to-date. Upon examining its anatomy, researchers determined that it was related more closely to dinosaurs in Europe and Asia than to those further south in Africa or in South America, meaning that at least some dinosaurs could travel between Africa and Europe. (BBC)
• Few doctors have heard of CHIP, or clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential, a condition which causes an accumulation of mutated stem cells in bone marrow. But emerging research suggests the condition may help answer an age-old question of why most people who have heart attacks have few or no conventional risk factors. Scientists have found that having the mutated cells increases a person’s risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke by as much as 50 percent. While the condition, which becomes more prevalent with age, could be diagnosed with a blood test, doctors advise against testing for it since there is nothing that can be done to reduce the increased risks of cancer or heart disease that it presents. (New York Times)
• In his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, President Trump threw his weight behind “right to try,” the idea that terminally ill patients should have access to experimental drugs and “not have to go from country to country to seek a cure,” as he put it. More than 30 states already have right-to-try laws, and the Food and Drug Administration allows some patients access to experimental treatments, but advocates say a federal law is needed to assure patients that the government won’t stand in the way. The Senate has passed such a law, but it stalled in the House. And Trump’s own FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, has expressed concern that the measure as written could interfere with the agency’s drug-approval process. (STAT)
• And finally, United Airlines drew a line in the sand this week when it forbade a woman from boarding a flight from New Jersey to Los Angeles with Dexter, her “emotional support peacock.” Airlines have seen a steep increase in the number of passengers seeking to travel with a menagerie of beasts classified loosely as “comfort animals” (emotional-support snake, anyone?), which are legally distinct from registered service animals. The problem: There’s very little real science, at least for now, to support the overall efficacy of using animals to enhance therapy, facilitate education, or provide any other benefits that fall under the formal rubric of Animal Assisted Interventions. And while groups like the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, a nonprofit founded by the pet products industry, are funding more research, the evidence to date is murky at best. “Support,” one animal behavior expert told National Geographic this week, “is just in the eyes of the beholder.” (BBC, Washington Post)