Biden names former aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch to help lead his COVID-19 response

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday named his new Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, which will help guide his response to the pandemic. And one of the three co-chairs is a former aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Dr. David Kessler, who is both a lawyer and a pediatrician, led the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, first appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and later reappointed by President Bill Clinton.

Before that, he was Hatch’s physician adviser for two years on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, where he worked largely on issues relating to the safety of food additives and on the regulation of tobacco. Hatch, who is no longer in the Senate, later was a key backer for Kessler’s appointment to lead the FDA as a young 39-year-old.

(Steve Miller | AP file photo) Former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler

When Kessler took over at FDA, he inherited an agency that he acknowledged suffered a lack of credibility because of generic drug scandals, bribery cases and lapses in regulating health claims on food.

Political columnist Jack Anderson at the time described Kessler’s job as “something like grabbing the helm of the Exxon Valdez after it hit the reef," referring to a giant oil tanker that created a catastrophic oil spill.

Kessler responded by creating a team of 100 criminal investigators who probed for violations of food and drug law. Seen as acting like a sheriff, he called for tougher penalties on violators — including putting extreme violators out of business, called disbarment.

“For companies that play roulette with the safety of the American people, disbarment is not an extreme punishment,” Kessler said as he took over the FDA.

Kessler took several controversial stands at FDA, and soon was seen as more popular with Democrats than Republicans.

That included leading an attempt by the FDA to regulate cigarettes and tobacco, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the agency did not have that power.

Under his watch, the FDA enacted regulations requiring standardized nutrition labels on food. Once, Kessler had 24,000 gallons of Citrus Hill orange juice seized because it was labeled as “fresh” but had been made from concentrate.

Kessler, now 69, a native of New York City, received his medical degree from Harvard in 1979 and his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1977 — somewhat overlapping his studies for both at the same time. He is now a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco.

Biden named two other co-chairs: former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor of internal medicine, public health and management at Yale University and the associate dean for health equity research at the Yale School of Medicine.

The advisory board also has 10 other doctors and health system administrators. Biden said others may be added.

“Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts,” Biden said Monday. “The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations.”

Biden’s transition team noted the advisory board is being formed as new cases are rising in at least 40 states.