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Lance Armstrong, the FDA's Most Wanted

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The FDA has struggled to protect us from dangerous drugs and deadly bacteria, bungling SmithKline Beecham's cover-up of heart attacks caused by Avandia, its diabetes drug, mistakenly approving an antibiotic deadly to your liver, and blithely permitting the vast majority of Chinese factories that produce our drugs to operate without inspections.

Fear not, tens of millions of dollars of this overtaxed agency's budget will now be spent on determining whether Lance Armstrong engaged in blood and sports doping several years ago. This will not make our drug or food supply safe, or stop people from dying from salmonella poisoning. But it will make or break the career of the woman who heads this embattled agency.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg has a degree from Harvard Medical School and an impressive record. As New York's top public health official during the 1990s, Hamburg successfully combated the spread of tuberculosis with an innovative and aggressive program. More recently she has served as the vice-president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a foundation "dedicated to reducing the threat to public safety from nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons."

Hamburg is a very able woman in a critically important position. She must know the enormous threats to our food and drug supply. But instead of focusing on fixing a troubled agency and launching criminal probes of pharmaceutical companies, she is being distracted by the federally financed hobby of chasing around Lance Armstrong and his lawyers.

Hamburg would do well to engage in a little summer reading. Agent Novitzky acquired his extraordinary powers to investigate Major League Baseball and launch the BALCO sports doping crusade because of the patronage of Mark Everson, who at the time was the Commissioner of the IRS. Everson, like his pal George W. Bush, was a baseball nut, and poured millions into Novitzky's efforts, giving him a carte blanche to travel at the very same time that "routine" IRS investigations of massive tax fraud cases that might have recouped hundreds of millions of dollars of unpaid taxes couldn't seem to get bus fare out of the agency.

Nevertheless Everson got his 15 minutes of fame. He stood next to John Ashcroft at the national press conference as the Attorney General spouted platitudes, proclaiming, "Nothing does more to diminish our potential -- both as individuals and as a nation -- than illegal drug abuse." Everson provided the cover story, stating that the investigation began because Agent Jeff Novitzky "detected suspicious cash transactions on the part of [BALCO founder] Mr. Conte."

The investigation began because Mr. Novitzky hated Barry Bonds and knew that if he could talk John Ashcroft and Mark Everson into funding a multi-million dollar witch hunt, he could become the Eliot Ness of sports doping. After a good run at the expense of the IRS, the BALCO federal well finally ran dry. In March of 2008, Douglas Shulman took over as Commissioner of the IRS. Novitzky lost his blank check, and joined the FDA within weeks.

It has been an extraordinary eight-year crusade for the agent. Novitzky has already become a legend in his time, but as with many ambitious men who quickly seize power, he is sitting on a powder keg.

Few would argue that Margaret Hamburg has a tough job, but the next year will decide whether the FDA's new leader is able to vindicate public safety.

It will take courage.

 

Follow Jonathan Littman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/IHatePeople_