Biden chooses former FDA chief Kessler to help lead U.S. vaccine drive

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has chosen David Kessler, the ex-head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for a senior role in the new administration’s efforts to boost the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, his transition team said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler (C) speaks to the press after presenting the White House with an alternative approach charted by leading U. S. public health groups that would be tougher on the cigarette industry. July 10, 1997. REUTERS//File Photo

The news came as Biden’s own team predicted the United States would mark some 500,000 deaths from the pandemic by next month and as the president-elect was due to outline plans to ramp up vaccinations.

Kessler, a pediatrician and lawyer who headed the FDA under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, will be Chief Science Officer of the administration’s COVID-19 Response.

The Biden administration plans to reorganize the vaccine distribution effort the Trump administration had called Operation Warp Speed, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The name of the effort will change, as will the people involved. Bechara Choucair, a doctor and chief health officer at the Kaiser Permanente health system, will coordinate the vaccine effort out of the White House, she said.

Moncef Slaoui, who had been the top adviser on the Trump administration effort, is expected to stay on as a consultant during a transitional period, while Warp Speed chief operating officer and U.S. Army General Gustave Perna will remain on the team during the new administration.

Biden has called the Trump administration’s vaccine rollout “a dismal failure.”

His own plan calls for Congress to spend $20 billion on vaccine distribution.

“We haven’t fully funded the COVID response,” Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, said in a Washington Post interview on Friday. “We’re going to see 500,000 deaths in this country sometime next month,” Klain said.

Kessler has been a co-chair of Biden’s advisory board on the pandemic. As head of the FDA, Kessler cut the time needed to approve drugs to treat AIDS and moved to try to regulate the tobacco industry.

His appointment comes at a critical point for the government’s effort to speed up the development and distribution of vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus in a country that has been particularly hard hit by the virus.

Biden has vowed to get 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses injected into Americans in his first 100 days in office. That pace is more than double the current rate but would still leave most of the country without the shot by the end of April.

Trump’s administration had aimed to give vaccine doses to 20 million Americans by the end of 2020 - but only 11.1 million shots had been administered as of Thursday, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a bid to expand vaccination efforts, the Trump administration said Tuesday it was releasing millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses it had been holding back for second shots.

The move was a departure from an earlier strategy to stockpile enough doses to ensure that required second doses of the vaccines are available.

The vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which were approved last month, require two doses.

Additional reporting by Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Jan Harvey, Catherine Evans, Andrew Heavens and Dan Grebler