David Kessler, who helmed the Biden administration’s efforts to develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines, treatments and tests, is stepping down.
Kessler has served as the Covid response’s top science official since the start of the administration, overseeing the purchase and initial rollout of hundreds of millions of vaccines. He later guided the booster shot campaigns and played a lead role in accelerating the development and availability of the Covid tests and treatments that became core elements of the White House’s plan to suppress the virus.
Kessler, 71, will officially leave the administration next week, ending more than two years of work on the pandemic response dating back to the Biden transition. Most recently, he shepherded the release in September of updated vaccines designed to better target newer strains of the virus.
“Whether he was leading our effort to develop and distribute safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, or sharing his perspective during daily strategy sessions and data deliberations, Dr. Kessler’s contributions to our COVID-19 response have saved lives,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement confirming his planned retirement from the post.
The government has now administered more than 665 million Covid shots, a historic campaign that sharply cut the risk of severe disease and death from the disease, and paved the way toward the resumption of everyday life for the majority of Americans.
Still, Kessler’s departure comes as the broader federal Covid response has narrowed its ambitions — and with the virus still accounting for more than 2,500 deaths a week. Congress declined to allocate additional funding for the response that is needed to develop more vaccines and treatments, ignoring months of warnings from Kessler and other top health officials.
States and localities have largely dropped their Covid precautions, and the rapid rise of a new Covid subvariant that appears better able to evade immunity has revived concern that the U.S. is mired in another winter surge.
The administration has also struggled to convince Americans to seek out the updated shot as pandemic fatigue sets in among the broader public. Fewer than 16 percent of those eligible have received the latest vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In recent months, Kessler had aided federal planning to shift coverage for vaccines and treatments to the private health insurance market later this year — a complex transition at the core of plans to eventually wind down the White House-led emergency response and transfer responsibility for much of the effort back to the health department. Kessler is the second senior Covid official to leave government of late, following top infectious disease expert and White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci’s departure at the end of last year.
An HHS spokesperson said a team of its doctors, scientists and public health officials would remain in close coordination with the White House and private sector on vaccine development following Kessler’s exit.
A former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who led the agency across two prior administrations, Kessler was part of the initial team that advised President Joe Biden’s transition on its Covid response preparations. Biden later named him chief science officer at HHS, putting him in charge of the federal vaccine accelerator originally known at Operation Warp Speed. Kessler worked closely with the White House in the early days of the presidency to organize and launch the nation’s mass Covid vaccination campaign.
Kessler was also central to Biden administration negotiations with drugmakers like Pfizer and Moderna over supply deals aimed at building out the nation’s stockpile of vaccines and treatments.
The Covid team accomplished its initial goals, securing enough shots for all Americans and eventually vaccinating more than three-quarters of American adults. Yet in August 2021, it became clear that vaccinated people could still get sick, dealing a blow to Biden and his ambitions of eliminating the virus altogether.
The rise of breakthrough infections reshaped the Covid response, and with it, Kessler’s job managing vaccine development and overseeing the nation’s supply of shots. The administration has since distributed multiple rounds of booster shots in a bid to stay ahead of the newest Covid strains, as well as a range of therapeutics.
Despite the difficulties in ensuring people keep up to date with their vaccines, studies show the risk of severe disease from Covid is substantially lower for those who have gotten all their shots — prompting White House officials to insist that nearly all deaths from the virus are preventable through the use of vaccines and treatments.
That more optimistic view, combined with the lack of congressional funding, has prompted Biden health officials to begin planning for the eventual wind-down of the administration’s emergency response later this year.