Josh Wingrove and Jeannie Baumann
WASHINGTON — David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner who helped steer President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 policy, will leave the administration — as the government’s response continues to gear down amid a waning pandemic and a funding crunch.
Kessler will depart the government next week, people familiar with the matter said. He plans to return to the University of California, San Francisco, from which he’s been on leave, after advising Biden since before his inauguration.
“He understands all the issues very well, and he’s got a lot of experience, It’s been a pure pleasure working with him,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, who retired at the end of last year as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Kessler and Fauci are the latest of Biden’s early coronavirus team to move on, as the administration’s pandemic response — initially the central focus of the administration — eases. Biden himself has declared that the pandemic is “over,” and Congress has stopped providing emergency funding for tests, treatments, vaccines and other public health measures.
Kessler, a physician and lawyer by training, led much of the early efforts to secure treatments and vaccines as the U.S. heightened its inoculation strategy. The U.S. has administered more than 665 million doses domestically, nearly all during Biden’s tenure, and has donated and shipped another 682 million abroad.
“Whether he was leading our effort to develop and distribute safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, or sharing his perspective during daily strategy sessions and data deliberations, Dr. Kessler’s contributions to our COVID-19 response have helped save lives,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
Kessler also has served as a personal coronavirus adviser to the president, and that included designing protocols intended to keep Biden himself from contracting the virus during the presidential transition. Biden finally caught COVID-19 last summer and recovered without requiring hospitalization.
Kessler’s medical background and analytical approach helped in interactions between the health department and pharmaceutical companies in developing monoclonal antibodies and assessing the availability of vaccines, Fauci said.
“I know his style, he knows my style. We’re very easy with each other. Calling him up in the middle of the night is not something that you worry about,” he said. “He was really very much value-added and will be missed. He’s clearly a very important part of the whole program.”
Since late last year, the administration’s response to the pandemic has been hobbled by a lack of funding. Congress has balked at new spending requests, leaving Biden and his team to reallocate existing money to buy at least some of a new generation of vaccines, which are designed to be more effective against variants.
While officials say they don’t have a clear picture of the caseload this winter, U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations remain below levels seen in the past two winters, even as the country has abandoned nearly all mitigation levels. The administration reopened a free testing portal and has encouraged people to get an updated booster shot; about 50 million have, compared to about 230 million who completed their first vaccination series.
Many of the chief architects of Biden’s initial COVID-19 team have now moved on from those roles, with Kessler joining Fauci as well as others like Jeff Zients, who served as COVID czar. Other key figures on his team have indicated they plan on staying on, including Becerra and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky.
The lack of funding has raised questions about whether vaccine makers will have enough incentive to develop an updated version of the shot later this year, as they did last fall, without the pledge of a government purchase. It’s also not clear whether the government will need to buy more of Pfizer Inc.’s treatment pill, Paxlovid, and when vaccines and treatments will shift entirely over to the commercial market.
Kessler was appointed head of the Food and Drug Administration in December 1990, by then-President George H. W. Bush, and remained in that role through 1997.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.