David Kessler, top science officer on Biden’s Covid response, will depart

“Whether leading our efforts to develop and disseminate safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments or sharing his perspective during day-to-day strategy meetings and data considerations, Dr. Kessler’s contributions to our COVID-19 response have saved lives,” said Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State for Health and Human Services, in a statement confirming his planned resignation from the post.

The government has now administered more than 665 million Covid shots, a historic campaign that has greatly reduced the risk of serious illness and death from the disease and paved the way for the majority of Americans to resume everyday life.

But Kessler’s departure comes as the broader federal Covid response has narrowed her ambitions – and the virus is still causing more than 2,500 deaths a week. Congress declined to allocate additional funding to the response, which 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 reignited concerns that the US is mired in another winter spree.

The administration has also struggled to persuade Americans to seek the updated shot as pandemic fatigue sets in among the general public. Less than 16 percent of those eligible have received the latest vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the past few months, Kessler has supported federal planning to shift coverage for vaccines and treatments to the private health insurance market later this year — a complex transition at the heart 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 the administration in recent times, after leading infectious disease expert and White House chief medical officer Anthony Fauci left late last year.

An HHS spokesman said a team of its doctors, scientists and public health officials will remain in close coordination with the White House and the private sector on vaccine development after Kessler leaves.

Kessler, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who ran the agency across two previous administrations, was part of the first team to advise on President Joe Biden’s transition in his Covid response preparations. Biden later named him chief science officer at HHS, giving him responsibility for the federal vaccine accelerator originally known as Operation Warp Speed. Kessler worked closely with the White House in the early days of the presidency to organize and launch the nationwide mass vaccination campaign against Covid.

Kessler also played a central role in the Biden administration’s negotiations with drugmakers like Pfizer and Moderna over supply deals aimed at building the nation’s stockpiles of vaccines and treatments.

The Covid team achieved its original goals, securing enough immunizations for all Americans and eventually vaccinating more than three-quarters of American adults. But in August 2021, it became clear that vaccinated people could still get sick, dealing a blow to Biden and his ambitions to eliminate the virus altogether.

The rise of breakthrough infections changed the Covid response and with it Kessler’s job of managing vaccine development and overseeing the nationwide supply of vaccines. The administration has since distributed several rounds of booster shots to stay ahead of the latest strains of Covid, as well as a range of therapeutics.

Despite the difficulties of making sure people stay up to date with their vaccines, studies show those who have had all their shots are significantly less at risk of developing serious illness from Covid – prompting White House officials to do so to insist that almost all deaths from the virus are preventable through the use of vaccines and treatments.

That more optimistic view, combined with the lack of funding from Congress, has prompted Biden health officials to begin planning for eventual handling of the administration’s emergency response later this year.

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