Former FDA official to help lead vaccine oversight for Biden

Biden announces additional team members to address pandemic

President-elect Joe Biden attends a coronavirus briefing with former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and other health advisers on Oct. 28, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden attends a coronavirus briefing with former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and other health advisers on Oct. 28, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Posted January 15, 2021 at 10:47am

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler will serve as chief science officer of the COVID-19 response under the Biden administration. 

Kessler will work with vaccine manufacturers, President-elect Joe Biden's transition team announced Friday. Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the administration's internal structure for overseeing the distribution of vaccines and medicines will differ from the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed initiative, the joint Pentagon and Department of Health and Human Services venture. Biden's vaccine strategy will instead operate out of the White House with assistance from agencies and will no longer be called Operation Warp Speed, she tweeted.

Kessler "will focus on maximizing the current supply of vaccines and work with manufacturers to help get more vaccines online as quickly as possible," Psaki said.

Kesser led the FDA in the 1990s under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. During his tenure, he pushed for greater regulation of the tobacco industry and championed consumer-friendly nutritional labels. 

In the time since, Kessler has worked as a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and as the dean of the medical schools at Yale and UCSF. He chaired the board of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group focused on nutrition and FDA, and authored books on nutrition, the tobacco industry and mental health. 

That's a shift in expertise for the drug manufacturing arm of the COVID-19 response, which is currently being led under Operation Warp Speed by pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui.  

Slaoui faced criticism for not divesting his financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry when he took the helm of the multibillion-dollar enterprise. Slaoui announced earlier this week that he had been asked to resign by the Biden team and that his contract would end on Feb. 12. 

Bechara Choucair, a former Kaiser Permanente executive and Chicago public health commissioner, will serve in a White House role overseeing Biden's goal to administer 100 million shots within the first 100 days, said Psaki.

The announcements come amid a troubled first few weeks for the vaccination effort under the Trump administration.

The Trump administration said its rollout would vaccinate 20 million people by the end of the year, but the country has seen just 11 million doses administered so far. Biden announced in a national address Thursday night that he would announce his national vaccination plan on Friday.

"We are in a race against time, and we need a comprehensive strategy to quickly contain this virus,” Biden said in a statement announcing the personnel moves.

Gen. Gustave Perna, who oversees the vaccine distribution side for Operation Warp Speed, has said he will remain in that position for as long as he is asked to stay. 

Other officials the Biden transition team announced Friday include former acting Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Andy Slavitt, who will be a senior adviser to the COVID response coordinator.

The Biden team also tapped a number of other experts to its COVID-19 team. They include: Vidur Sharma, health policy adviser to the Domestic Policy Council under the Obama administration, to be testing policy adviser; Amy Chang, a former special assistant in the Health and Human Services Office of the Secretary, as policy adviser; Abbe R. Gluck, a Yale Law School health law professor, as special counsel; Rosa Po, a former Senate aide and HHS staffer, as COVID-19 response team deputy chief of staff; Ben Wakana, former executive director of Patients For Affordable Drugs, as deputy director of communications and engagement; and B. Cameron Webb, a professor of health equity at the University of Virginia, as senior policy adviser for COVID-19 equity.