David Kessler to Take Reins as Operation Warp Speed’s Scientific Leader
Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler is set to become Operation Warp Speed’s new chief science officer as just a single day remains until the Biden presidency takes up the mantle for accelerating COVID-19 vaccinations and countermeasures.
The initiative’s current head science adviser, Moncef Slaoui, will stay on temporarily in an advisory position to ensure the project sees a smooth transition to the Biden administration. Gustave Perna, the operation’s logistics leader, will remain in his current role.
Kessler, who already serves as co-chair of President-elect Biden’s COVID-19 task force, previously led the FDA as commissioner from 1990 to 1997. Kessler’s tenure as chief saw a rapid effort to ramp up agency efficiency in reviewing and approving drugs, particularly AIDS drugs that proved critical to combating the HIV and AIDS epidemic of the 1990s.
The former agency head worked for years alongside Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) Director Janet Woodcock at the FDA. Woodcock, who was recently appointed Commissioner Stephen Hahn’s principal medical adviser, is expected to become acting FDA commissioner and is being considered for the permanent position, according to reports (DID, Jan. 15). Woodcock would likely step down from her current role as Operation Warp Speed’s COVID-19 therapeutics adviser if selected to head the FDA.
Kessler is also reportedly on the short-list for the job of permanent commissioner, as is Joshua Sharfstein, who was the FDA’s principal deputy commissioner from 2009 to 2011 and the leader of former President Obama’s FDA transition team. It’s unclear if Kessler’s appointment as chief science officer affects his prospects of being appointed FDA commissioner.
Current HHS Secretary Alex Azar will be replaced by Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California. Becerra, who does not bring any public health experience to the role, is known for being a strong proponent of Obamacare and a single-payer Medicare-for-all system.
President-elect Biden has said that his vaccination strategy will involve accelerating the distribution of shots so that as many initial vaccine doses can be given to patients as possible. The tactic is a reversal of the Trump administration’s initial strategy of holding back shots to ensure second doses can be administered on time. — James Miessler