NIH’s Francis Collins to Retire, Leaving Void in U.S. Pandemic Team
(Bloomberg) -- Francis Collins, the doctor and geneticist who has led the U.S. National Institutes of Health through three presidential administrations, said he plans to retire by the end of the year, leaving a key position to fill in the government’s pandemic response team.
Collins, 71, was appointed as the 16th director of the NIH by President Barack Obama in 2009. Lawrence Tabak, the agency’s second in command since 2010, would be in line to serve as acting director until the Biden administration nominates a permanent replacement.
The move adds to concerns about leadership at the nation’s health agencies. The Biden administration has yet to nominate a permanent head of the Food and Drug Administration. And Bloomberg has reported that the government’s Covid-19 response has blurred the lines of decision-making in some cases, such as the White House’s pronouncements on booster shots before authorization by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser for Covid-19, has turned down the NIH chief’s role several times under previous administrations, preferring to focus on his work as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
With more than a dozen years at NIH, Collins is the second-longest-serving director in the agency’s history and the only one to be appointed by three different presidents. He will continue to lead his research lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
In a statement, President Joe Biden called Collins a “dear friend” and “one of the most important scientists of our time.”
“Few people could come anywhere close to achieving in a lifetime what Dr. Collins has at the helm of NIH,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
At the onset of the pandemic, Collins and Fauci were among public-health professionals trying to provide Americans with clear guidance in a chaotic period for the Trump administration. Collins kept a lower profile than Fauci, but the two kept in close communication, and Collins was quick to defend Fauci from President Donald Trump’s criticism.
Collins first joined the agency in 1993 to lead the genome research institute, where he orchestrated the mapping of the human genome. His nomination in 2009 moved swiftly through the Senate, and he’s remained popular on Capitol Hill, with his agency’s budget climbing to $42 billion in 2021 from $29.5 billion in his first year.
As director, he led an overhaul of the agency’s hospital after an external review found widespread problems with the NIH Clinical Center. He also pushed forward a major reorganization of the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers a decade ago when the agency established a new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, aimed at turning discoveries into drugs, devices and other interventions.
Collins led the agency through big-ticket research initiatives on brain research, opioids, precision medicine and cancer. Biden, who has known the NIH director since he was a senator, said he’s leaned on Collins in trying times.
“After my son Beau died from cancer, and President Obama asked me to launch our National Cancer Moonshot, I turned to Dr. Collins to help lead the effort to end cancer as we know it,” Biden said. “There was no one I trusted more.”
Collins is now one of the leaders behind the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a proposed multi-billion-dollar initiative that would serve as an incubator for biomedical discoveries, drawing on lessons learned from the Covid-19 response to develop vaccines and diagnostics in record time.
The NIH director said in an interview two years ago that he wasn’t interested in a lifelong directorship and would like to see a woman lead the agency. The only female director in the agency’s history was the late cardiologist Bernadine Healy, who held the position from 1991 to 1993.
Collins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2007, and two years later received the National Medal of Science. He’s a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and is a devout Christian and prolific musician.
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