WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump is weighing naming as Food and Drug Administration commissioner a staunch libertarian who has called for eliminating the agency’s mandate to determine whether new medicines are effective before approving them for sale.
“Let people start using them, at their own risk,” the candidate, Jim O’Neill, said in a 2014 speech to a biotech group.
O’Neill has also called for paying organ donors and setting up libertarian societies at sea — and has said he was surprised to discover that FDA regulators actually enjoy science and like working to fight disease.
A source close to the Trump transition team told STAT that Peter Thiel, the billionaire Trump donor who is helping shape the new administration, is pushing for the FDA appointment for O’Neill, his managing director at Mithril Capital Management.
Trump’s focus on O’Neill was first reported Wednesday morning by Bloomberg.
O’Neill would be an unusual choice. He is not a physician, and lacks the strong science background that nearly all former commissioners have had in recent years.
A graduate of Yale University, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, O’Neill went to work at the Department of Health and Human Services in 2002, after a stint as speechwriter at the Department of Education. He worked his way up to principal associate deputy secretary, where he advised the HHS secretary on all areas of policy, according to his LinkedIn page.
O’Neill first worked with Thiel at Clarium Capital Management, and also ran the Thiel Foundation and Breakout Labs, which funds early-stage companies in areas ranging from food science to biomedicine to clean energy. He is a promoter of anti-aging treatments and technology.
O’Neill also serves on the board of the Seasteading Institute, an organization that aims to create its own sea-based floating communities, on the theory that existing governments are woefully ineffective. “Obsolete political systems conceived in previous centuries are ill-equipped to unleash the enormous opportunities in twenty-first century innovation,” the Seasteading website notes.
O’Neill is not well-known in Washington, but has been a frequent speaker on the biotech circuit.
In 2014, in a talk to a group gathered to discuss regenerative medicine, he recalled his days at HHS and expressed disdain for the FDA’s process.
“As a libertarian, I was inclined to believe that the regulatory costs that the FDA impose kill a lot of people and provide a lot of harm to the economy, and I don’t deny that … but one thing that surprised me is that the actual human beings at the Food and Drug Administration like science; they like curing disease and they actually like approving drugs and devices and biologics.”
The problem, O’Neill told the group, is the overall structure and incentives of the regulatory system.
“Every time the FDA commissioner approves something and someone gets sick who used it, the commissioner is summoned to a congressional committee that also controls his budget and forced to testify under oath, why he made this rash decision. … It’s a miserable process,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill has proposed that the FDA only require companies to prove drugs are safe before they are sold — not that they actually work.
O’Neill has also said that organ donors should be allowed to be paid. “There are plenty of healthy spare kidneys walking around, unused,” he said in a speech at a 2009 Seasteading conference.
His participation in the Seasteading movement might be a sensitive topic, too. The video of his speech was available on the Seasteading Institute’s website in the afternoon, but by evening, it had disappeared.
In the speech, which is still available elsewhere, O’Neill said that “we can all wish that existing governments will somehow stumble into freedom, but if we want to achieve freedom, seasteads are by far the best prospect.”
Neither O’Neill, Thiel, or Trump transition team staffers returned calls seeking comment.
Also under consideration for the FDA job: Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA deputy commissioner.
Gottlieb, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was a senior adviser to the presidential campaign of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. A clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, he is a venture partner at the venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates, and a senior principal at TR Winston, a health care-focused merchant and investment bank. He has testified before Congress 18 times on health and regulatory issues.
Gottlieb was recently named to the transition team.