Biden taps former FDA commissioner Kessler to head vaccine efforts

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President-elect Joe Biden is tapping former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler to serve as chief science officer of the COVID-19 response and help spearhead federal efforts to vaccinate millions of Americans, the transition team announced Friday.

Kessler co-chaired Biden’s coronavirus task force during the transition and worked as FDA commissioner from 1990-1997 under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Kessler will replace Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who is currently leading Operation Warp Speed, the vaccination program started under the Trump administration. Incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the Biden administration’s vaccine program will go by a different name.  

Kessler will be a key player in Biden’s plans to accelerate vaccine distribution and meet his goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office. Biden is expected to lay out his vaccine plan in detail during an address later Friday afternoon.

Psaki tweeted that Kessler “will focus on maximizing the current supply of vaccines and work with manufacturers to help get more vaccines online as quickly as possible” as part of a team spearheaded by Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services. 

Kessler was part of the global effort to speed the availability of HIV/AIDS drugs in the 1990s. 

The transition team also announced that Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Obama, will serve as a senior adviser to the coronavirus response coordinator, a position that will be held by Jeff Zients.

Ben Wakana, who served as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under Obama, will be deputy director of strategic communications and engagement. And Vidur Sharma, who worked in Obama’s White House as a health policy adviser at the Domestic Policy Council, will be an adviser for testing.

The transition said that Amy Chang, who worked at HHS during the Obama administration, will be the COVID-19 policy adviser; Yale law professor Abbe Gluck will be special counsel; and Rosa Po, a former HHS policy adviser under Obama, will be the response team deputy chief of staff.

“We are in a race against time, and we need a comprehensive strategy to quickly contain this virus,” Biden said in a statement.

“The individuals announced today will bolster the White House’s COVID-19 Response team and play important roles in carrying out our rescue plan and vaccination program. At a time when American families are facing numerous challenges I know these public servants will do all that is needed to build our nation back better,” the president-elect continued.

Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States in five days. He will take office as coronavirus cases are surging across the country and deaths due to the virus approaching the grim milestone of 400,000.

Biden has criticized the Trump administration for falling short of its vaccination goals despite the approval of two successful coronavirus vaccines, produced by Pfizer-BionNTech and Moderna respectively. 

On Thursday evening, Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that includes over $400 billion to support coronavirus response efforts, including $20 billion to set up a nationwide vaccine program to more quickly distribute vaccines.

“The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure thus far,” Biden said during the speech in Wilmington, Del. 

Jordan Williams contributed.

Tags Biden transition Bill Clinton Coronavirus FDA Jeff Zients Jen Psaki Joe Biden task force Vaccine Xavier Becerra

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