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Merck's New Vaccine Honcho: Former CDC Chief Gerberding

After stepping down as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) almost a year ago, Julie Gerberding has a new gig: She will preside over vaccine development at the drug giant Merck. The company announced the appointment yesterday, adhering to the requirement that civil servants wait a year before joining an industry they helped regulate.

Merck currently has 12 vaccines on the market, including the relatively new vaccine Gardasil to prevent cervical cancer. The company has eyed vaccine development as an area that can offer it a much-needed financial boost. It’s hoped that Gerberding, Merck said, will help “expand Merck's vaccine offerings throughout the world.” Sitting at the nexus of vaccine research and manufacturing, she’s charged with speeding commercialization of new shots and increasing the reach of existing ones.

Gerberding’s background is in infectious disease. Her 6-plus years at CDC, where she was the first woman to lead the agency, were sometimes marked by tensions within the agency. But she managed to boost CDC’s communications with the general public, particularly in times of public health crises like potential flu pandemics.

The switch from civil service to private industry is a trip that many make when Administrations turn over. Although Gerberding followed the rules, she is already getting flak in the blogosphere for a perceived conflict of interest. Vaccine skeptics, especially those irate at her rejection when she was CDC director of theories that link vaccines and autism, argue that the move to Merck demonstrates her bias—since Gerberding will now be promoting the products she defended while in government. “Bring someone from industry into the government regulating division that’s in need, get the vote or approval desired, then return said official to the private sector again, to reap the benefits,” said one autism site, deeming this “another example in a long line of government/industry collusion.”