By Lisa Richwine, WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama is set to nominate former New York City health chief Margaret Hamburg as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, people with knowledge of the matter said on Thursday.
Hamburg, if confirmed by the Senate, will take over an agency stung by a deadly salmonella outbreak and a series of drug safety problems over the past several years.
A public health and bioterrorism expert, Hamburg ran New York’s health department from 1991 to 1997, and also served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton.
Hamburg could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
The possible choice of Hamburg and Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, who was widely expected to serve as her deputy, drew praise from consumer, patient and industry groups who want a new leader to restore confidence in the FDA’s ability to protect the public.
“Their resumes are impressive and both are familiar with the FDA’s failure to protect the public from foodborne illness,” the Consumer Federation of America said.
The FDA oversees prescription and over-the-counter drugs, medical devices, most foods and other products that account for about one-quarter of the U.S. economy.
The agency lacked a permanent commissioner for more than half of former President George W. Bush’s eight years in office and was accused of allowing politics to interfere with science, particularly when it initially rejected over-the-counter sales of the Plan B emergency contraceptive.
Reports by the Institute of Medicine, an FDA board of outside scientists and others also found the agency stretched thin with increasing responsibilities, outdated computer technology and a lack of adequate staff. Scientists were criticized for lax oversight of risky medicines and foods, most recently a deadly salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter.
Ellen Sigal, chair of advocacy group Friends of Cancer Research, said she believed Hamburg would be “science-driven” and would “bring stability and trust” to an agency that had been under siege and starved for funds.
“She’s a person who will be driven by data,” Sigal said.
As New York health commissioner, Hamburg was known for developing a treatment plan that produced a sharp drop in tuberculosis cases. She now works for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group that aims to diminish threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Sharfstein previously worked for Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, a harsh critic of the FDA and the drug industry. Sharfstein was vocal with concerns about the risks of cough and cold medicines for children. He had no comment about a possible appointment on Thursday.
Stephen Ubl, president of industry group AdvaMed, praised Hamburg as a physician with “a proven track record of successfully managing large, complex organizations.”