Biden names former aide to Utah’s Orrin Hatch to lead Operation Warp Speed

David Kessler has co-led Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board.

(Denis Paquin | AP file photo) Then-Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Administrator David Kessler testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 15, 1995. On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden named Kessler to help lead Operation Warp Speed.

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday named Dr. David Kessler, who was once an aide to former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to help lead Operation Warp Speed, the program to accelerate development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Kessler, who is both a pediatrician and a lawyer and is former chief of the Food and Drug Administration, has been serving Biden as co-chair of his transition’s COVID-19 Advisory Board.

Biden made the announcement on Friday along with several additional members of what will be the White House COVID-19 response team as Biden takes office next week.

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

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris added, “Containing the coronavirus pandemic is one of the defining challenges of our time. This outstanding team will help us defeat this challenge by helping get this virus under control, responsibly reopen our economy, and safely reopen our schools.”

Kessler officially will become chief science officer of COVID response for the White House. He will replace Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who will become a consultant to Operation Warp Speed. Kessler will share top responsibilities for the initiative with Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who will continue as chief operating officer.

The New York Times quoted Anita Dunn, co-chair of Biden’s transition team, saying, “When staff gets asked, ‘What do the doctors say?,’ we know that David Kessler is one of the doctors that President-elect Biden expects us to have consulted.”

She added, “Dr. Kessler became a trusted adviser to the Biden campaign and to President-elect Biden at the beginning of the pandemic and has probably briefed Biden 50 or 60 times since March.”

Kessler. who led the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, was 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 later was a key backer for Kessler’s appointment to lead the FDA as a young 39-year-old.

When Kessler took over at the 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 the 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.