WASHINGTON -- The rumor mill has been working overtimeover the process of naming Bernadine Healy's successor asdirector of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). HaroldVarmus has been billed -- on and occasionally off -- as thefront runner.

The Nobel Prize winner in medicine in 1989 for his co-discovery with colleague Michael Bishop of oncogenes has somehighly refined qualifications for the job. His scientific skills fitthe health agency's mission of basic biomedical research, aswell as the interests of the biotechnology community. He alsohas strong support from the scientific community.

However, the appointment has taken a long time to becomeofficial.

"Everyone we have talked to on the Hill seems to be convincedthat it's Varmus," Peter Kyros, a former congressman whosefirm is lobbying for Varmus, told BioWorld. "I don't know whythey are waiting so long."

But "the longer Varmus goes without being picked, the lesslikely it is," one source told BioWorld.

"It takes longer than two days for everybody up the chain toreview (the selections)," a source inside the Department ofHealth and Human Services (HHS) told BioWorld. "It's been acredible process, based on the right criteria."

Yet it's only two steps from assistant secretary for healthdesignate Philip Lee, who has primary responsibility formaking the choice, through HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, to thepresident. Shalala and President Clinton both must approve theselection.

A staffer for Varmus supporter Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,argued that only 10 days have passed since the field waswinnowed from four candidates to Varmus and psychologistJudith Rodin.

President Bush effectively politicized the position of NIHdirector when he asked James Wyngaarden, Reagan'sappointee, to resign. Bush spent months searching for a directorwho would support a ban on fetal tissue research.

This time there is no such litmus test, the HHS source toldBioWorld. Though they are unwritten, the criteria should be"obvious: excellence in research, the ability to manage,outstanding leadership."

Although Rodin lacks the biomedical background that manyconsider crucial to the NIH job, the No. 2 contender and provostof Yale University has experience in large-scale administration,which Varmus lacks.

Another characteristic that many say is essential in a directorof NIH is the ability to work well with Congress and keep theagency well funded. A source on Hillary Rodham Clinton's TaskForce on Health-Care Reform described Varmus as "a pricklyfellow." But while Rodin reputedly has superior social andpolitical skills, Varmus would have the ear of Pelosi, a memberof the House Appropriations Committee.

The source on the health-care task force added that the 20-plus directors of NIH's institutes prefer a weak director so thatthey can be in stronger positions.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.

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