David Kessler, M.D., White House COVID-19 Response Leader, to Give Einstein’s 2021 Commencement Address

David A. Kessler, M.D., chief science officer for the White House COVID-19 response team, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and former medical director of Jack D. Weiler Hospital, will deliver a virtual keynote address to Albert Einstein College of Medicine graduates on Thursday, May 27.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Einstein’s 63rd graduation will be held on campus this year on the lawn outside the Price Center for Genetic and Translational Medicine. Dr. Kessler will receive an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Einstein during the ceremony.

Dr. Kessler was chosen by President Joe Biden in January to oversee the national effort to manufacture and distribute COVID-19 vaccines as well as develop antiviral treatments. As head of the FDA under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he accelerated the approval of antiviral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS and launched a number of programs, including regulating the marketing and sale of tobacco products to children; adding nutrition labeling to food; improving food safety; strengthening the nation’s blood supply; and instituting the MEDWatch program, which publishes safety alerts for FDA-regulated products, such as prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

A professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) (on leave), Dr. Kessler has also served as dean of the medical schools at UCSF and Yale.

Trained in the Bronx

Dr. Kessler’s ties to Einstein and Montefiore began decades ago, in the 1980s. “I always wanted to learn how to run a hospital,” he says. “And I wanted to know, where does one go to learn this business?” After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1979 and finishing his internship and residency in pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, he sought out advice from Dick Knapp, Ph.D., then senior adviser to the president of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Dr. Knapp steered him to “two of the greats in the business, who both happened to be at Montefiore,” Dr. Kessler says: Irwin Birnbaum and Mo Katz, who told him he wouldn’t find better training on how to run a hospital than in the Bronx.

Dr. Kessler soon became the special assistant to the president of Montefiore Medical Center in 1982 before being promoted to medical director two years later.

“It was a complex organization, but it was very much a family, and one of the reasons I went to Montefiore was its commitment to the hospital as a social instrument,” Dr. Kessler says. “The other major training ground, which led me to work at the FDA, was seeing the first cases of HIV in the 1980s. I remember exactly where I was standing when Burt King, M.D., who was running the Montefiore Rikers Island Health Service, told me about these cases of fever developing among the prisoners.”

Dr. Kessler says that working at Einstein and Montefiore during the beginning of the HIV/AIDs epidemic “really shaped me, even to this day.”

He worked closely with Anthony Fauci, M.D., who was director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, a position Dr. Fauci still holds. “When we started, there was one drug for HIV and it didn't work very well. Certainly, that experience, which started in the Bronx, was very good training for what I am doing today. We were taking care of patients with HIV, moving on to building programs for HIV, with Dr. Fauci doing drug development, getting them across the finish line.  And we changed the course of the illness.”

While in the Bronx Dr. Kessler also held teaching appointments in pediatrics and epidemiology and social medicine at Einstein, was an attending physician in the emergency department at Jacobi Medical Center, and taught food and drug law at the Columbia University School of Law two evenings a week.

Spearheading the COVID-19 Response

Since he has assumed his newest responsibility, leading the COVID-19 response effort, more than 285 million shots have been administered in the United States (49% of the total population). Still, Dr. Kessler knows he has more work to do. “Come July, when everyone who wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated, we are still going to have a significant number of cases. And regrettably, the number of deaths will still be too high. Not only in the United States, but around the world, we need to protect people who don't have access to the vaccine or for whom the vaccine does not confer protection. So we are working on antivirals, something we did for HIV back in the 1990s.”

Dr. Kessler says considering the variants that have emerged and the global reach of the disease, his goal “is to try to transition COVID from a deadly disease to something that can be managed. We are investing in pandemic preparedness, and we need to do this because it will not be the last pandemic we see.”

A Champion of Public Health

Dr. Kessler has a wide range of experience in research, clinical medicine, education, administration, and the law. He is a 1973 magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Amherst College. Besides his Harvard medical degree, he has a J.D. degree from The University of Chicago Law School, where he served on the Law Review.

Certainly, that experience, which started in the Bronx, was very good training for what I am doing today.

David Kessler, M.D.

A member of the National Academy of Medicine, Dr. Kessler is the author of a number of books addressing the pressing public health issues of our time, including the bestsellers A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, and Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering, among other works. His latest book, Fast Carbs, Slow Carbs: The Simple Truth About Food, Weight, and Disease was published by HarperCollins in 2020.

He has served as chair of the boards of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). At EGPAF, Dr. Kessler helped spearhead a major global effort to make drugs available to millions to end the transmission of mother-to-child HIV-AIDS. He was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 2001.

Message for Graduates

Recognizing the amount of work and energy they have put into their studies, Dr. Kessler says this year’s graduating class of M.D., M.D./Ph.D., and Ph.D. students at Einstein will have “enormous opportunities, and I would argue a responsibility to seek answers to hard, challenging questions.

“You never know when that opportunity will arise,” he says. “But I believe it's very much a privilege that goes along with earning a medical and graduate degree, which allows all Einstein graduates to tackle a whole host of issues. Everybody will find their calling. And there's still a lot of training ahead for those doing their residency. But there's an enormous opportunity to make a difference in this world.”