WASHINGTON — Dr. David A. Kessler, who for the past two years has been the behind-the-scenes force driving a vast federal effort to develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines and treatments, is leaving the Biden administration — another sign that the pandemic is no longer front and center for the White House.
As chief science officer for the administration’s Covid-19 response, Dr. Kessler, 71, has operated largely unseen by the public. But his work — on issues like setting up mass vaccination sites, pushing for the development of antiviral medicines and distributing reformulated booster shots — has affected the lives of millions of Americans.
“Six hundred sixty-five million vaccines, 13 million antivirals,” Dr. Kessler said in a brief interview on Friday, referring to the number of doses that Americans have taken since December 2020, shortly before President Biden took office. “We did what we set out to do.”
Still, millions of Americans remain unvaccinated, and the public has been slow to receive the new booster doses. When asked in an interview last summer if vaccine hesitancy frustrated him, Dr. Kessler talked instead about the mass vaccination sites, his efforts to distribute shots to pharmacies and nursing homes, and his work to make them available to children.
“Our job was getting safe and effective vaccines to be accessible,” he said then, “and to make sure that everyone could have it, and that it was easy.”
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Dr. Kessler’s departure signals the end of Operation Warp Speed, which was started by the Trump administration to develop and distribute coronavirus vaccines. Although the Biden administration dropped the name, the mission of the program under Dr. Kessler remained the same. Now the Biden administration is working to shift Covid vaccination from a government-run effort to one that will be handled by the private sector.
In his role, Dr. Kessler was responsible for negotiating with drug companies to make certain that vaccines were available to anyone who wanted one — at a price for the government that was far lower than what companies want to charge on the commercial market in the future.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are already gearing up for battles with the companies. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has twice sought the Democratic nomination for president, sent a letter to the vaccine maker Moderna this week, warning its chief executive, “Now is not the time for unacceptable corporate greed.”
It seems unlikely that the Biden administration will replace Dr. Kessler. Officials say the Department of Health and Human Services has other doctors, scientists and public health officials with expertise who will work with the White House and private industry on vaccine research and development.
Dr. Kessler had hopes of building a more permanent infrastructure for vaccine development and manufacturing. In late 2021, the administration announced a plan, drafted by Dr. Kessler, to invest billions of dollars to expand vaccine manufacturing capacity by partnering with industry to prepare for future pandemics.
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“This is about assuring expanded capacity against Covid variants and also preparing for the next pandemic,” Dr. Kessler said at the time. “The goal, in the case of a future pandemic, a future virus, is to have vaccine capability within six to nine months of identification of that pandemic pathogen, and to have enough vaccines for all Americans.”
The plan was set aside, however, when Congress refused to give the administration any additional money to spend on vaccines. The billions the administration had hoped to spend to ramp up vaccine manufacturing capacity went instead to purchasing the updated booster shots now being distributed.
In Washington, Dr. Kessler may be best remembered for a far more public role, as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Under Mr. Clinton, Dr. Kessler, who has a law degree from the University of Chicago as well as a medical degree from Harvard, took on the tobacco companies, and he later wrote a book about it. He also helped speed the development of AIDS drugs.
When Mr. Biden was running for president at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Kessler was one half of a two-person team — the other half was Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, now the surgeon general — who briefed the candidate almost daily on matters related to the pandemic.
When Mr. Biden became president, Dr. Kessler took over Operation Warp Speed and ran it alongside Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who had worked under President Donald J. Trump and retired in 2021.
Dr. Murthy said on Friday that Dr. Kessler had been an “essential counselor on a wide range of strategic decisions” and called him “one of my absolute favorite people to work with in the administration.”
Dr. Kessler said that he would wrap up his work in the administration next week and that he expected to take some time off before returning to teaching at the University of California, San Francisco.
Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, praised Dr. Kessler’s service in a statement.
“For decades, Dr. Kessler has worked tirelessly to address our nation’s most challenging public health issues,” Mr. Becerra said, “and his work during the Covid-19 pandemic has been no different.”