A Brief Interview With David Kessler ’73, Co-Chair of President-Elect Biden's Covid-19 Task Force

On Nov. 8, President-elect Joe Biden announced the appointment of Doctors David Kessler ’73, Marcella Nunez-Smith and Vivek Murthy as co-chairs of his new coronavirus task force. 

In a brief interview with The Student, Kessler discussed the college’s formation of Covid-19 protocols, conducting weekly briefings with President-elect Biden and the promising, preliminary mRNA vaccine data released by Pfizer. In the conversation, he noted and later confirmed with The Student, that the Pfizer vaccine has a 94 percent efficacy rate, an update to the company’s previous announcement of over 90 percent efficacy from preliminary, unpublished data.

Kessler’s resume is impressive, to say the least. After graduating magna cum laude from Amherst 1973, he attended Harvard Medical School and completed his residency in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. During his time at Harvard, he also obtained a law degree from the University of Chicago. 

Kessler is a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and a professor of biostatistics at the School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He previously worked as the dean of the schools of medicine at Yale University and UCSF. He was the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 1990 and 1997, appointed by both Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Bill Clinton. He is an esteemed author and has published several books related to nutrition and health, his most recent being “Fast Carbs, Slow Carbs: The Simple Truth About Food, Weight and Disease” in 2020.

An Advisor for Biden, then Martin

In early March, a colleague called Kessler and asked for advice regarding the novel coronavirus. At that time, the United States had not shut down. 

“With my colleagues, we recommended that the [Biden campaign’s headquarters] shut down. To their credit, within two hours they shut the headquarters down, and everyone started working from home,” he said. 

After March 13, Kessler and colleagues began briefing Biden multiple times a week. And Biden was quite receptive to his advice. 

“I would say, ‘Mr. Vice President, we’re out of time [at the end of meetings].’ And he would say, ‘No, keep going. This is important, too.’”

“The career scientists at the FDA are world class,” he said. “It’s always problematic when the political agenda interferes. The good news is that we are past the election, so those FDA scientists can do their jobs unimpeded by any” political pressure.

As a medical professional and previous director of the FDA, Kessler had managed responses to HIV and other epidemics. But the coronavirus was different. 

“We had to learn everything there was about the virus, like how it was transmitted. And we had to stay current,” he said. “So we were up 24/7 in order to brief. We learned everything we could.”

Around the same time, President Biddy Martin reached out to him for advice, Kessler said. In conjunction with Dr. Harold Varmus ’61, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel ’79 — who was also appointed to Biden’s Covid-19 taskforce — and teams of other college presidents and their leadership, Kessler briefed Martin on the virus and how the college should respond. 

“We gave our best advice,” Kessler said. “But it was really Biddy’s  leadership, decision-making and courage,” that prompted her to make the difficult, but correct, decision to shut the campus down in March, he said. 

During the briefings, Kessler noted Martin’s concern for the wellbeing of the students, faculty and staff at the college. “I don’t think anyone understands the weight of these decisions,” he said. 

The Current State of the Fight Against Covid

Cases across the country, right now, are spiking. 

“We briefed the president-elect this week. The doubling time, when you just look at new cases, is 30 days. The numbers we are seeing are rising at a rate we have not seen before. We are entering the third wave. The factors that are driving this pandemic will almost all increase the numbers. There is pandemic fatigue, everyone’s moving inside and the holidays are coming up. The numbers will strain healthcare resources.”

The recent surge was initially confined to the midwest and mountain states. That is not the case anymore. “I don’t think this will continue. This is moving to both coasts. This is everywhere.”

“At the current rate of contact, we are in exponential growth.”

Thoughts on a Potential Vaccine 

But will the potential vaccines be effective in preventing Covid-19? Will they be safe? “Very preliminarily, there is very good news on the vaccine … the 94 percent efficacy [of the Pfizer vaccine] is in the range of the most effective vaccines,” Kessler responded. 

A recent report from Pfizer indicates vaccine efficacy of over 90 percent, which has been widely reported in major publications. An efficacy of 94 percent, noted by Kessler, means that in 100 individuals who receive the vaccine, only six would be expected to develop Covid-19 symptoms compared to the placebo. Pfizer calculated the efficacy based on 94 subjects who contracted the virus in a double-blind study. The trial will continue until 164 patients have been diagnosed with Covid-19, at which point more data will be released. With a larger sample size, the efficacy of the vaccine might change. 

“We’ll hear soon about the results of the Moderna study, if that is positive. That will be very important news, because it would basically replicate Pfizer’s data,” he added. 

As the previous FDA commissioner, Kessler noted that the vaccine is promisingly safe. “The FDA needs to go through the data. But, in fact, there hasn’t been any serious adverse events to data. That is very encouraging.” 

Looking ahead, though, Kessler is more wary. “We need to get through the next period of time, which is going to be very difficult,” he said.