“The NIH used to be a universally-respected, non-political organization before COVID, but that trust has been broken.”
WASHINGTON – Today, at a markup of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) voted no on the nomination of Dr. Monica Bertagnolli for Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Last week, Senator Tuberville questioned Dr. Bertagnolli about what she would do to restore trust in the NIH after their mishandling of COVID.
Read excerpts below or watch the full exchange from last week here.
Senator Tuberville: “Being an educator, this really touches me. The NIH funded a recent study about the psychosocial functioning in transgender youth after two years of hormones. According to the letter NIH sent to Ranking Member Cassidy and me, the research seeks to understand the physical and psychosocial effects of medical intervention to evaluate the effectiveness of existing medical treatments already in use among transgender youth. As you know, two young people committed suicide who were part of this study. That’s obviously a tragedy – but what concerns me even more is the fact that the NIH was funding this research. And beyond that, I believe the NIH even called the study a success. That’s sick. It sounds to me like the NIH totally dropped the ball on quality control and oversight. So, if confirmed, how will you make sure nothing like that ever happens on your watch?”
Dr. Bertagnolli: “So first, Senator, I really thank you for your affirmation of the critical importance of NIH and what we are and that we are here to serve the American people and just how critical that is and how important this job is. And to that end, in response to your question, we have the greatest responsibility to ensure two things. First, that we serve all people, all people, all walks of life, and that we really are here to achieve the health of all. But that number two, any research that we do that involves human beings, people, is conducted according to the highest ethical principles so that we make sure that the research is intending to do no harm, to achieve benefit, and is done in ways that have maximum respect for the dignity of people. If confirmed as NIH director, I will affirm to you that that will be my mode of action and my highest priority for all human research.”
Senator Tuberville: “Thank you. One more quick question, chairman. The NIH used to be a universally-respected, non-political organization before COVID, but that trust has been broken, especially in rural parts like my state of Alabama. You’re from rural Wyoming. So, you get the real perspective and you understand just how much people in those parts of the country in particular have lost confidence in our public health institutions. They feel totally overlooked. What would you do as NIH Director to help gain back some of that respect in rural areas?”
Dr. Bertagnolli: “Thank you so much for that question, and I’ll be very, very brief. Two things. Number one, I believe deeply in the doctor-patient relationship. That has incredible value, that is trust. A patient comes and puts their life in the hands and their health in the hands of their doctors. And anything that we can do to strengthen the doctor-patient relationship is something that we should pursue to the fullest extent possible. And then second, I believe in education at all levels. […] Patients joining us in research to the fullest extent possible, not science here and people here, but people joining us to do science. I think that also engenders great trust in the process if it’s done in a respectful and appropriate way.”
Dr. Monica Bertagnolli is currently serving as the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) under the NIH. Before this job, she was a cancer surgeon and researcher.
In recent years, the NIH has come under scrutiny for the way the agency handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers and members of the research community have continued to raise issues with different aspects of NIH research, including:
- A recent study of a cohort of youth who identified as transgender or non-binary under age 18 where two of the minors committed suicide and eleven reported experiencing suicidal ideations.
- Senator Tuberville and Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) wrote a letter to the NIH expressing concerns about the study, and the response.
- In her hearing, Dr. Bertagnolli confirmed that she believes the NIH should be able to do research on this topic.
- She has not been able to guarantee the NIH would be able to ensure that all minors participating in these studies could consent to such therapies.
- The NIH has financed multiple studies over the years using human fetal tissue (aborted or otherwise).
- Dr. Bertagnolli has performed research using human fetal tissue herself (in the 1980s) and said that she would maintain the current NIH policy of allowing this research – although she does believe it should be used only as a last resort.
- She has been unable to explain how the NIH would navigate acquiring aborted fetal tissue in the wake of Dobbs, specifically from states where abortion is illegal.
- The NIH has funded many studies using embryonic stem cells.
- Dr. Bertagnolli has stated that she would maintain current NIH policy and allow the continuation of this research.
- The NIH funded research in China on pathogens of concern – specifically, the contract made with the Wuhan Institutes of Virology where many believe the COVID-19 virus originated.
President Biden announced Dr. Bertagnolli’s nomination on May 15, 2023, and soon after, Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced that he would be holding her nomination until the Administration worked with him on several of his priorities, including demands to lower the cost of drugs. Last month, the White House agreed to Chairman Sanders’ demands and he lifted his hold on her nomination.
Senator Tommy Tuberville represents Alabama in the United States Senate and is a member of the Senate Armed Services, Agriculture, Veterans’ Affairs, and HELP Committees.