Monday, November 10, 2008

Transitioning to a New FDA: What's Next for Von Eschenbach?

As Barack Obama said at his first press conference as President-elect on Friday, there can only be one president at a time. Likewise, there can only be one FDA commissioner at a time.

While there’s been a lot of speculation about who might take the reins from Andrew von Eschenbach (see our picks here and here), there hasn’t been a lot of talk about the plans of the current commissioner. When will he leave? Where is he headed? Who will fill in for him until a permanent replacement can be found?

Von Eschenbach himself has remained mum on his post-FDA plans, but we’ve heard that a deanship is in the works—potentially a return to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he served as VP and chief academic before being named director of the National Cancer Institute in December 2000.

One thing appears clear: von Eschenbach will tender his resignation before Obama takes office, probably sometime in December, and will leave the agency soon after January 20. That is the typical protocol for presidential appointees--or at least for those not named David Kessler (the one FDA commissioner holdover since the 1950s). FDA officials have been preparing for the transition to a new Administration for months.

Given that the selection of an FDA commissioner is pretty far down Obama’s to-do list, von Eschenbach’s departure will involve a temporary replacement for at least the near-term. Recall that during the last transition after President Bush took office in 2001, it took until early 2002 before Lester Crawford was named acting commissioner, and until November before Mark McClellan was sworn in.

So whomever is named acting commissioner when von Eschenbach leaves could remain in that position for some time. As much as the pharmaceutical industry would like that temporary head to be Center for Drug Evaluation & Research director Janet Woodcock, FDA chief scientist Frank Torti is a more likely pick.

But despite what you may have heard, FDA says von Eschenbach's departure is not imminent. We asked the commissioner’s office about reports that von Eschenbach is packing his bags, and here’s what a spokesperson had to say:
The FDA Commissioner serves at the pleasure of the President. As protocol dictates, all senior political appointees submit their resignation to the President who appointed them at the conclusion of the Presidential term.

Commissioner von Eschenbach will remain deeply engaged and sharply focused on leading the Agency in accomplishing its mission of protecting and promoting the health of the American people every single day of his service, until the very last day, whenever that may be.”

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