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Two frontrunners on short list for FDA chief, report says

Is Pres. Obama getting closer to filling a key health post? The role of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief is down to two candidates, the Washington Post says in an unsourced report: Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein and former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. Sharfstein's name has been floated repeatedly since Obama was elected, and Hamburg's surfaced early this month.

The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of the U.S. food and drug supply, and it's been roiled in conflict-of-interest scandals over some of its advisers' ties to the pharmaceutical industry and failure to quickly pinpoint the origin of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses (and catch tainted products — like the peanut butter responsible for the ongoing salmonella outbreak — before they make people sick).

Sharfstein, 39, headed up the Obama transition committee's assessment of the agency, and in his academic life, published papers criticizing the pharmaceutical industry's influence over medical education — and doctors groups' influence on elected officials, the Wall Street Journal Health Blog has noted previously. Sharfstein was a health-policy adviser to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who during the Bush administration criticized the politicization of science. Since becoming Baltimore health commish in 2005, Sharfstein has made a name for himself as an advocate of children's vaccines, crackdowns on dirty restaurants and treatment for drug addicts, the health blog added.

Sharfstein wouldn’t comment on whether he's on Obama's short list or if he would take the job. "I can't really talk about it," he told ScientificAmerican.com.

Hamburg led the NYC health department from 1991 to 1997, where she established a needle-exchange program to curb the spread of HIV, set up a bio-terrorism defense program and instituted home visits to improve tuberculosis patients' adherence to their medicines. She was assistant secretary of health and human services for policy and evaluation in the Clinton administration and is now a senior scientist at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that works to reduce the spread and use of nukes and chemical weapons.

Hamburg said she had no comment on whether she's in the running for the FDA post.

Others previously mentioned for the spot are drug company whistle-blower Steven Nissen and Susan Wood, who led FDA's office of women's health until she resigned in 2005 over the agency's approval process for over-the-counter emergency contraception. (FDA approved the drug, Plan B, the following year.)

Obama still needs to fill other health posts, including secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). His original pick for HHS, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, withdrew from consideration over his failure to pay $120,000 in taxes. Democratic Committee Chairman Howard Dean is being touted as a dark-horse candidate.

Updated at 11:25 a.m. Feb. 19 with Hamburg not commenting.

Image of Joshua Sharfstein/Baltimore City Health Department

Image of Margaret Hamburg/National Library of Medicine

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