President-elect Joe Biden is overhauling the faltering U.S. vaccination initiative he’s about to inherit, appointing new leaders of the effort and retiring its unpopular name days ahead of his inauguration.
Biden will install David Kessler, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s, to serve as chief science officer of the COVID-19 response. His job will include steering what President Donald Trump’s administration dubbed Operation Warp Speed and replacing Moncef Slaoui, who served as science chief for the vaccine development and distribution initiative.
The Warp Speed program is being rolled into a broader portfolio to be overseen by Kessler. Biden’s team wants to emphasize its new focus on hastening immunizations, people familiar with the matter said, asking not to be identified because there hasn’t been an official announcement.
As such, Biden’s team is retiring the Operation Warp Speed moniker, the people said. Critics have said the name sowed even greater mistrust among a public already skeptical of how quickly COVID-19 vaccines were being introduced.
Biden’s transition has been referring to the effort as Covid Response, with one official saying the change reflects that Warp Speed’s effort of getting vaccines authorized is considered complete. The Trump administration, however, tasked Warp Speed with both vaccine development and distribution.
Incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed late Friday morning that they’d ditch the name.
Biden will detail his plan to overhaul the U.S. vaccination campaign in a speech Friday afternoon in Wilmington, Delaware. His comments come as the Trump administration tries to smooth out a rocky rollout, and as Biden’s health team flashes warning signals that there will be no quick fix.
“We have to meet the moment where it is, and it’s not good right now,” Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee for health secretary, told MSNBC on Friday.
Since vaccines were introduced in the U.S. in mid-December, 11.9 million doses have been given, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. That represents just 39% of the shots that have been distributed.
But Trump administration officials who asked not to be identified said they believe Biden’s target of administering 100 million doses in 100 days is dramatically less than what they would have delivered. Internal projections that the officials said Biden’s team has seen show that enough vaccine will have been produced by the end of April to inoculate 170 million people.
Their projections assume that a single-dose vaccine anticipated from Johnson & Johnson Inc. wins regulatory approval in February.
One administration official who is part of Operation Warp Speed said the current leaders of the effort don’t care what Biden calls the program.
The Trump administration has spearheaded much of the development and distribution work, shifting responsibility of getting shots into arms to state and local leaders. That has proved to be a bottleneck so far, with states including West Virginia and Connecticut quickly administering many of the doses they receive while others, like Alabama, lag behind.
Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, said Friday during a Washington Post event that the vaccine rollout so far has been “very botched,” and has been hamstrung by a failure to share information and a hollowing out of scientific expertise. The new administration faces a challenge to rectify that, he said.
Biden officials want to build further confidence in the vaccines, which were developed at record pace under a president who otherwise paid little heed to science. Biden’s health team has said that the expedited effort has fueled doubts about the vaccine, and officials have regularly sought to assure the U.S. public that dangerous shortcuts were not taken.
“One last myth that I want to dispel is a concern that I’ve heard from some people that this vaccine was developed too fast, right? So, even the name of the entity in government that was charged with trying to figure out how to get a vaccine quickly was called Operation Warp Speed, right?” Vivek Murthy, who Biden has tapped to be surgeon general, said in a call with U.S. faith leaders this week. “For some people, they heard it and they said, hmm, why is this happening so fast? Are there corners being cut?”
Biden is turning to Kessler, who took on the tobacco industry as FDA commissioner in the 1990s. A professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, Kessler also served as dean of the medical schools at Yale and UCSF, according to the statement announcing the move.
While Slaoui is departing, another senior Warp Speed official is staying on. Gustave Perna will remain as the program’s chief operations officer, according to a person familiar with the plans. The Army general is overseeing the logistics of distributing vaccines.
Biden is also considering Janet Woodcock, a 30-year veteran of the agency, for the FDA role, Bloomberg reported Thursday, citing people familiar with the selection process.
Other appointees include Andy Slavitt, who will serve as a senior adviser on the COVID-19 response. Slavitt was acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in former President Barack Obama’s administration, and a defender of the Affordable Care Act. Amy Chang, who worked in the Department of Health and Human Services under Obama, will be a policy adviser to the effort. Abbe Gluck, a Yale University law and medicine professor, will be special counsel, according to the statement.
Ben Wakana, former executive director of Patients For Affordable Drugs and a member of the transition team, will be deputy director of strategic communications and engagement for the response. Vidur Sharma, a former Obama health policy adviser, will be policy adviser for testing.
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