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Biden's chief scientist for COVID response is stepping away


Operation Warp Speed is coming to a stop. That program oversaw the creation and distribution of hundreds of millions of doses of the coronavirus vaccine. It started under the Trump administration. And for the last two years, Dr. David Kessler has led the effort, though without the space age name. He is now leaving the Biden administration, which signals that the federal vaccination program is also winding down. Dr. Kessler, good to have you back on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAVID KESSLER: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: I said this program distributed hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine, but the distribution actually happened at pharmacies and clinics all over the country. So how would you describe what your role was from this perch in Washington, helping to make sure that vaccines got to people all over the country?

KESSLER: One of my colleagues wrote me an email yesterday, and I think he summed up what we did. He said, you created a goal-oriented culture of cooperation that put the vaccines, boosters and antivirals within easy reach of the American people. I think that - there's a team. It wasn't me alone. But that goal-oriented process of cooperation - you know, there's great agencies at HHS. There's FDA, NIH, CDC. And we were sort of the glue.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about a specific challenge or a specific conversation that was something you had to solve in order to get the vaccine to a particular place or group of people?

KESSLER: I remember very early on, January 2020, and one of the manufacturers that'll go unnamed, I remember the night where the CEO said, we're going to sell these vaccines in the commercial market, go private with these vaccines. And I just looked at him - it was over Zoom - and I said, that's not going to happen.

SHAPIRO: What power did you have to keep that from happening?

KESSLER: I'm not sure exactly what legal authority I had, but the thing that I did know that I had was the president of the United States. And he would back us.

SHAPIRO: And so did the CEO just back down?

KESSLER: I think the proof is that everyone in this country had access to the vaccine, not just people who could pay or could afford. It was within, you know, five miles of - 95% were within five miles. It was easy. Sure, there were a couple of lines early on. But then, I think it's one of the great historical achievements. I don't think in the history of public health, I don't think we'll ever see this kind of effort again.

SHAPIRO: You said everybody has had access to the vaccine. Not everybody has taken advantage of that access. In fact, only 16% of Americans have gotten an updated booster. Something like 78% of Americans have had at least one dose of the vaccine. But why do you think that booster number is so low?

KESSLER: You know, just stepping back, I saw our job is to make it available, to make sure it was easily accessible...

SHAPIRO: You weren't the marketers.

KESSLER: Yeah. I mean, I just wanted to make sure that it was available equitably. You know, we really did close the gap for disadvantaged, vulnerable communities. It was one of the remarkable stories early on. But you're right. The uptake is not where it should be. There's still considerable virus out there. Look, you know, I think that it really is a matter of individual choice. People are making their decisions. So I think - I understand the country wants to move on. But the tools are out there. You don't want to have serious complications or hospitalization or death. The virus is not going away. But the tools - no, they're not perfect. But they're pretty good.

SHAPIRO: And so can you describe, going forward, what, to you, the ideal world of vaccinations would look like? Would this be something like a flu shot that people get once a year or every six months? Would there be an innovation that allows one vaccine to deal with any future iterations of the disease? Like, what do you imagine?

KESSLER: There's a VRBPAC meeting - that's the vaccine advisory committee - that the FDA has coming up at the end of the month. And they're going to discuss this. I think there's - you know, it is a wish, you know, that maybe we could make COVID vaccines fit the kind of schedule we have for flu - coming together in the spring to decide on this strain, and in the fall, the vaccine becomes available. That works for flu. That's a seasonal virus. And while there's seasonality components of COVID, it's not just in the fall. So the question remains whether the virus is going to let us fit it into a schedule that we want or whether, in fact, we're going to see surges. And the question is whether people over 65 will need to be protected, not just in the fall but at other times. So I still think there's a great deal of uncertainty.

SHAPIRO: There's right now low political will to keep investing in vaccines. There's low demand for people to get updated boosters. And so how wide do you think the gap is between the future you would like to see and the reality we're living in?

KESSLER: I think there is support across the aisle for what we did here to accelerate vaccines and drugs.

SHAPIRO: But then why hasn't Congress met the funding demands that the administration has asked for?

KESSLER: Let's - you know, I think - what I would love to see is to take the lessons that we learned out of Warp Speed and apply it to not only future pandemic issues but to cancer, to neurodegenerative diseases. I think that there still is strong support for that. We know how to accelerate therapies for serious and life-threatening diseases. And I think there is, across the aisle, a desire to do that.

SHAPIRO: And then the other half of the puzzle is, you know, the best tool is only good if somebody uses it. And if there isn't demand for uptake of new vaccines, that's a problem, right?

KESSLER: Sure. But there are also - you know, there are some very positive numbers that came out of this. Some 226 million people got the primary series. That's a lot of people. That's 80%. I think that's phenomenal. This is a very diverse country, no question. The vaccines became polarized. But if there's any skeptic out there, go look at the pictures of China today - their hospitals, their emergency rooms, their clinics. Our vaccines were one of the major reasons that we don't look like that now.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. David Kessler, who has been chief science officer for the Biden administration's COVID-19 response. Thanks a lot.

KESSLER: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.