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Last Updated

06 Feb 2003

Source: New York Times, February 22, 2002.

Embattled Disease Agency Chief Is Quitting


WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 The federal health official who led the government in its first faltering response last year to anthrax infections and the threat of bioterrorism said today that he was resigning.

The official, Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, said he would step down as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the end of March.

Health officials and authorities on bioterrorism said tonight that Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, and Bush administration officials had been unhappy with Dr. Koplan, contending that he had not given enough emphasis to bioterrorism, a priority for President Bush.

Administration officials said that Dr. Koplan also had not done enough to coordinate the work of his agency, based in Atlanta, with senior administration officials in Washington.

Appointed by the Clinton administration in 1998, Dr. Koplan helped modernize the laboratories and increase the capacity of his agency to deal with such health threats as AIDS, smoking and obesity. But above all he will be remembered for his response to the anthrax attacks.

Though respected as a knowledgeable scientist, he often appeared uncomfortable in his public role.

Scientists and health officials said that Dr. Koplan and his agency did not at first recognize that a particularly potent form of anthrax sent to Senator Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, the majority leader, would endanger postal workers in the nation's capital, two of whom died.

State and local officials complained that Dr. Koplan and his staff were inaccessible in the early days of the outbreak. The absence of an authoritative voice, to provide reassurance, guidance or even information, left the public confused and left doctors unsure how to respond.

In an interview tonight, Dr. Koplan said he had not been pushed out of his job. The decision to resign, he said, was "completely mine."

Asked if he had come under pressure to step down, Dr. Koplan said, "Not in the least." Asked if he had any evidence that Bush administration officials were dissatisfied with his work, he said: "No, I don't. I have no reason to think that."

When told that some administration officials contended he could have given bioterrorism a higher priority, Dr. Koplan said: "That's ridiculous. Whoever gave you that information is either ignorant or malevolent. We have always asked for more money and support than we've received from any source. Bioterrorism has been a priority area from the moment I arrived at C.D.C. In the last three years, we've put together a laboratory of international distinction capable of isolating and identifying anthrax in a variety of specimens."

In announcing his plan to resign, Dr. Koplan said today that he and his agency had responded "swiftly and effectively to the nation's first major bioterrorism event."

But Mayor Steven L. Abrams of Boca Raton, Fla., where the first anthrax case occurred, said he spent an entire morning trying to find C.D.C. officials to learn if they were going to close his city's post office.

Dr. Ivan C. A. Walks, director of the city Health Department here in Washington, said the federal agency was slow in issuing health alerts and official statements on the outbreak.

Mr. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, made little effort to conceal that he was sometimes dissatisfied with Dr. Koplan, contending that the agency, based in Atlanta, was operating independently and not taking direction from Washington.

Dr. Koplan's departure will create another opening at the top level of the Public Health Service, which already has many vacancies.

Drug companies are discovering new cures every week, but the Food and Drug Administration has no commissioner. Congress is doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health, but the agency has been without a presidentially appointed director since Dr. Harold E. Varmus left in December 1999.

Dr. David Satcher, the surgeon general of the United States, left office last week when his term expired. He had been appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Dr. Alastair J. J. Wood, a drug- safety expert at Vanderbilt University who was seen as a leading candidate for commissioner of the drug agency, has been told that he is no longer in the running, a university spokesman said today. Some drug company executives had said they worried that he might be too zealous in regulating their products. Dr. Wood had suggested that the drug agency should be more aggressive in monitoring medicines on the market.