President-elect Joe Biden has picked Dr. David Kessler, a former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, to lead federal Covid-19 vaccine efforts for the incoming administration, Biden’s presidential transition team announced Friday.
Kessler, who is currently the co-chair of the Biden transition’s coronavirus task force, will help lead Operation Warp Speed in the new role, helming the group that began under President Donald Trump to speed up vaccine development and distribution.
Kessler will take over for Moncef Slaoui, who led the effort during the Trump administration. Slaoui, the most visible official leading the Trump administration’s vaccine effort who was a notable voice of cooperation at a time when Trump refused efforts to begin a transition, announced earlier this week he was resigning at the Biden transition team’s request.
Slaoui will stay on for another month to “ensure a smooth transition,” a Biden transition official told CNN earlier this week. Gen. Gustave Perna, who is currently the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, will stay on in the new administration but under its “new structure,” a transition official tells CNN.
Operation Warp Speed has been successful in rapidly manufacturing a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine but has failed to meet expectations in administering doses to Americans. Biden has laid out a timeline for 100 million shots in the first 100 days of his term.
Kessler, who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats, previously led the FDA for over six years under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
He was first appointed by Bush to lead the FDA in 1990 and oversaw the rollout of the agency’s iconic “Nutrition Facts label” on packaged foods for the first time. He also helped streamline the FDA’s drug approval process and led the agency during the AIDS/HIV epidemic.
Kessler was also an outspoken advocate for more regulation of nicotine and launched an FDA investigation, pitting him against the powerful tobacco industry. The FDA’s investigation resulted in tobacco executives admitting nicotine’s addictive qualities, and lawsuits filed by state attorneys general resulted in a landmark settlement of more than $360 billion. Nearly a decade later, a law was passed in 2009 giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products.
His approach to the top FDA job led some conservatives to call for his ouster, believing Kessler was enforcing too much government regulation, the New York Times reported. His crackdown on vitamin manufacturers’ unsubstantiated health claims turned then-GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who was his former boss and had backed him for FDA chief, into a top critic.
Kessler stepped down from the role of FDA commissioner in February 1997 and was named dean of Yale medical school later that year.
Kessler is currently a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. He also served as chair of the boards of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
This story has been updated with additional reporting and background information.