The Perfect Enemy | David Kessler, Biden official key to covid vaccine effort, steps down - The Washington Post
January 29, 2023

David Kessler, Biden official key to covid vaccine effort, steps down – The Washington Post

David Kessler, Biden official key to covid vaccine effort, steps down  The Washington PostView Full Coverage on Google News

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David Kessler, an early adviser to President Biden on the coronavirus pandemic who emerged as a pivotal player in the administration’s efforts to vaccinate Americans and deliver covid-19 treatments, is stepping down.

Kessler oversaw the spending of billions of federal dollars to accelerate the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines and medications to counter a virus that has menaced the world for more than three years. Those medical products, distributed to states and provided free of charge, transformed covid for many people from a deadly threat to an unpleasant but temporary ailment.

Kessler joined Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign at the start of the pandemic, dispensing information to Biden and others on the wily virus and advice on how to keep the candidate and staff members safe. After the election, he was appointed chief science officer for the coronavirus response. While he was based at the Department of Health and Human Services, Kessler’s deep West Wing connections gave him sweeping authority to manage key elements of the coronavirus response.

“I look back and I say, ‘It’s been quite a journey,’ ” Kessler said. “Everyone who wanted a vaccine had access to it, and we got boosters, too.”

Kessler, who is 71, plans to return to the University of California at San Francisco, where he will write, conduct research and teach.

“For decades, Dr. Kessler has worked tirelessly to address our nation’s most challenging public health issues, and his work during the COVID-19 pandemic has been no different,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “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.”

A former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Kessler had a strong background for a job that required an understanding of the workings of the FDA, which regulates drugs and vaccines, and other federal health agencies. He and his team negotiated deals with pharmaceutical companies, sometimes prodding them to accelerate their efforts or wrestling with knotty supply issues.

In some ways, Kessler’s departure signals the last chapter in what was formerly known as Operation Warp Speed, the initiative started by the Trump administration to develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines and treatments. He is the latest Biden health official to leave a top post. Anthony S. Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who served as chief medical adviser to Biden, left government at the end of the year. The president has not nominated anyone to succeed Francis S. Collins, who stepped down a year ago as director of the National Institutes of Health.

Kessler is leaving as the pandemic claims fewer lives but remains far from over. Officials are keeping a close eye on a fast-spreading omicron subvariant, called XBB.1.5, that has surged in the United States in the past several weeks. Health experts say the variant is more transmissible than previous versions of the coronavirus but doesn’t necessarily worsen an individual’s covid symptoms.

Even as the virus remains a big concern, the administration’s ability to combat it has been blunted by diminished resources. Republicans in Congress have repeatedly rebuffed the White House’s request for more coronavirus funding to bolster the uptake of vaccine boosters and to develop new treatments that are effective against new variants.

Kessler, a pediatrician and a lawyer, joined the fledgling Biden administration in January 2021. He replaced Moncef Slaoui, a researcher and drug developer who co-led Operation Warp Speed. Kessler ran the effort, which dropped the Operation Warp Speed moniker, with Gustave Perna, a four-star Army general. Perna retired in summer 2021.

At the start of Biden’s term, two mRNA vaccines — one by Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, and the other by Moderna — had already been authorized by the FDA. But distribution efforts were stumbling amid complex logistics and debates over whom to prioritize for the shots, which were in short supply. Kessler and other officials scrambled to buy more mRNA vaccines.

To date, more than 942 million doses of coronavirus vaccine have been delivered to states, and more than 665 million have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While many Americans embraced vaccines initially, they have not rushed to get updated boosters, which became available in August. Just 16 percent of Americans 5 and older have received the omicron-targeting booster and only 39 percent of the most vulnerable group, people 65 and older, have gotten it, according to the CDC.

In addition to vaccines, Kessler’s operation also bought and distributed covid-19 monoclonal antibodies — lifesaving therapies for people with impaired immune systems that don’t respond to vaccines — and antivirals such as Paxlovid. But viral evolution has one by one knocked the monoclonal antibodies out of the tool kit.

Kessler was brought into the Biden camp in 2020 by Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser, as the campaign scrambled to adjust to the virus with little information. He quickly became involved in all campaign operations, from briefing the president on the pandemic and policy proposals to vetting campaign events for health and safety protocols. In lengthy briefings on the pandemic, Kessler and Vivek H. Murthy, now surgeon general, divided up topics.

For the first debate between then-President Donald Trump and Biden, Kessler insisted the candidates stand at least 13 feet apart. That proved fortuitous when Trump was hospitalized with covid-19 a few days later.

As FDA commissioner during the 1990s, Kessler served in the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He worked closely with Fauci to accelerate the availability of the first AIDS drugs and oversaw the development of the first nutrition facts label for food. Kessler launched investigations into the tobacco industry and tried to bring cigarettes under FDA regulatory authority, an effort derailed by the courts. But Congress in 2009 passed a landmark law giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products.

Looking back on his pandemic tenure, Kessler said one of the most difficult days was Thanksgiving 2021, when South African authorities announced that a new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus was spreading rapidly through that country. The variant was omicron.

“You realize, this is not going away,” he said. “There will be variant after variant.”