Continuing a shake-up of the agency’s media strategy after the troubled rollout of a coronavirus treatment authorization, according to two officials with knowledge of the move.
John “Wolf” Wagner, who’s served as FDA’s associate commissioner for external affairs for two months, will take a new role in the office of the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, Commissioner Stephen Hahn told staff on Wednesday. The move comes just days after Hahn removed the agency’s top spokesperson, Emily Miller — a political appointee who served less than two weeks in the job.
The FDA’s communication strategy has been under significant scrutiny during the coronavirus pandemic — particularly after the agency last month gave emergency authorization for convalescent plasma to treat Covid-19 patients despite scant evidence of its effectiveness. Hahn and Miller touted misleading data about the treatment, prompting an apology from Hahn after severe blowback from the medical community. Public health experts and Democratic lawmakers saw the episode as the latest evidence of the FDA being guided by pressure from President Donald Trump to deliver on coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
Hahn told staff that Heidi Rebello will act as associate commissioner for external affairs, replacing Wagner, who is a close ally of HHS spokesperson and longtime GOP operative Michael Caputo. Hahn also announced that Michael Felberbaum will serve as acting assistant commissioner for media affairs, replacing Miller, who remains at FDA in an advisory role.
Wagner will work on Operation Warp Speed, the joint HHS-Department of Defense effort to speed development of coronavirus vaccines and therapies, as well as other department communications efforts, said two individuals with knowledge of his next steps.
Former FDA commissioners offered supportive messages for FDA’s new communications heads on Twitter. Rebello and Felderbaum “are outstanding professionals who have a strong sense of the agency’s special public health mission, and deep expertise in its scope and inner workings,” wrote Scott Gottlieb, who previously led the agency under Trump.