Monday, November 24, 2008

FDA Commissioner Search: Finding Kessler’s Kessler

Former FDA commissioner David Kessler has the perfect person in mind to be the next head of the agency: (1) an MD (2) with a broad background in both foods and drugs (3) who is a Washington veteran and (4) has experience managing a 10,000-person organization.

Sound familiar? It should, since that is essentially Kessler’s curriculum vitae.

Kessler received his medical degree from Harvard. As FDA commissioner under the Bush I and Clinton Administrations, he took on Big Pharma and Big Food—as well as Big Tobacco. As a former head of FDA, he is a familiar face inside the Beltway and has obvious experience managing a government agency.

We’ve speculated that Kessler could make a return visit to the FDA commissioner’s office, and we’ve also observed that after many spending many relatively quiet years as an academic—first at Yale Medical School, and then at the University of California-San Francisco—he’s been pretty outspoken recently about what’s wrong with FDA.

But is he interested in the job? As reported in this week’s issue of “The Pink Sheet”, the answer to that question appears to be no—but not enough of a no to shake the suspicion that it might really be yes. When asked if he’d be interested in taking over FDA for the Obama Administration, Kessler shook his head no. “That was an historic period,” he said. “I don’t know how we’d do it again.”

OK, so we’re not taking him off our lists quite yet. But if it isn’t Kessler himself, then who is Kessler’s Kessler? Here’s a snapshot of his picks and pans for the job, as conveyed during a recent event hosted by the public relations firm Fleishman Hillard:

Mike Taylor: “My deputy in policy [at FDA]; went to run [the Food Safety and Inspection Service]; probably the best food safety person in the country but not a doc. You may have to go for the first time with a non-doc.” [One of our observant readers pointed out that there is precedent for at least one non-MD who served as commissioner in the modern era: Jere Goyan. He was a PhD pharmacist.]

Bill Schultz (Zuckerman Spaeder): “Probably as knowledgeable as anyone on FDA. Real pro, but again not a doc.”

Josh Sharfstein (Baltimore City health commissioner): “On Waxman’s staff; worked for me; Baltimore public health commissioner; hasn’t run anything quite as big as FDA.”

Steve Nissen (Cleveland Clinic cardiologist): “What does he know about foods? What does he know about running Washington? Has he been there before?”

Of course, we’re still a long way from hearing anything definitive about the FDA commissioner—president-elect Obama’s formal announcement of Tom Daschle as HHS secretary is still pending, after all. Until then, we’ll keep on speculating.


PharmaGuy said...

According to a Pharma Marketing News survey, only 6.8% of respondents (N=222 as of 11/25/2008) picked Kessler as their choice for the next FDA Commissioner.

I invite IN VIVO Blog readers to take the survey and tell me who they think should be commissioner:

John Mack
Editor, Pharma Marketing News

James D. Miller said...

While I do not know Dr. Scharfstein personally, I have heard him speak at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and he's very impressive. He has done a first-rate job as Health Commissioner for Baltimore City. I've known Mike Taylor for 25 years, and he is just an extraordinary person in terms of intellect, character, and commitment to public health. So both of them, in my view, are strong candidates for Commissioner.