President Barack Obama intends to name former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to lead the troubled Food and Drug Administration.
Hamburg and the health commissioner of Baltimore, Maryland, Joshua Sharfstein, have been talked about for weeks as leading candidates for the top two spots at the agency, with Sharfstein as Hamburg's deputy commissioner.
Wednesday, a person close to Hamburg said the announcement was imminent. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no White House confirmation. Spokesmen for the White House and the Health and Human Services Department would not comment on the nomination.
The two physician-outsiders will be tasked with restoring credibility to an agency that has suffered a string of failures such as repeated food recalls, including a massive salmonella outbreak across the United States caused by tainted peanut products.
Hamburg is a well-known bioterror expert who served as an assistant health secretary during the 1990s administration of President Bill Clinton and helped lay groundwork for much of the government's bioterror preparations and planning for possible pandemic flu outbreaks.
She probably is best known, however, as the chief health officer of the nation's largest city during the early 1990s, when she designed a program that lowered high rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis, supported needle-exchange to cut the spread of the AIDS virus and helped introduce smoking restrictions.
Sharfstein is a pediatrician who has been outspoken in efforts to improve oversight of children's cold and flu medications. Before becoming Baltimore's health chief in 2005, he served as health policy adviser to Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, a congressional health leader.
Neither of the apparent choices is steeped in the drug-approval process that is FDA's best-known function. Public health specialists had been pushing for outsiders who could bring a conflict-free perspective to an agency that struggles to balance the need for new treatments with ensuring that they are as safe as possible. Several praised the choices, first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
"What this to me represents is leadership at the Food and Drug Administration that will keep the public health first and foremost in mind," said Dr. Harvey Fineburg, president of the prestigious Institute of Medicine. He called Hamburg "a person committed to the public well-being, and that's the value you really want represented at the FDA."
"You've got an organization that's demoralized and one that wants to enhance its scientific integrity," said Dr. Georges Benjamin of the American Public Health Association. "She's all about integrity and science. ... She can be tough when she needs to be, and she's going to need to be real tough in that job."
Hamburg will require Senate confirmation; Sharfstein will not.