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News Briefs

Bush Names Acting FDA Chief to The Top Job

President Bush announced Monday that he would nominate the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Lester Crawford, to be the agency’s permanent commissioner, in the midst of a congressional investigation of the agency and widespread calls that it strengthen its oversight of drug safety.

Crawford, who was considered and rejected for this same job by President Bush in 2001, has made priorities out of speeding crucial drug approvals, protecting drugs and food from terrorist attacks and improving the manufacture and safety of medicines. He has opposed legalizing drug imports.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt is expected to visit FDA’s Rockville, Md., offices Tuesday not only to praise Crawford but to announce new efforts by the FDA to improve the agency’s ability to uncover unknown dangers of marketed drugs.

Leavitt called Crawford “an outstanding choice” who “has dedicated his career to advancing the nation’s public health.” The nomination comes on the eve of a widely anticipated three-day drug advisory committee meeting that starts Wednesday that will examine, in part, how the agency handled questions over the safety of the huge-selling pain pills, Vioxx, Celebrex and Bextra. It also comes as calls have grown louder in Congress for significant changes at the agency.

AIG Gets Federal, State Subpoenas

The American International Group, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, said Monday that it had received two new subpoenas from state and federal investigators. The disclosure came just days after many investors interpreted comments by top company officials as a signal that the worst of AIG’s regulatory problems had been resolved.

The subpoenas from Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, seek information on nontraditional insurance and transactions that some companies have used to improve the appearance of their financial statements.

The regulators have been looking at such arrangements, often referred to as finite insurance or financial reinsurance, with increased scrutiny after earlier investigations into AIG deals that helped one company hide losses and another hide bad loans. But people who have been briefed on the latest subpoenas said the attorney general and the SEC were trying to determine whether AIG had used these products and services to improve its own financial picture.

At a financial conference sponsored by Merrill Lynch on Monday in Manhattan, several investors asked Howard Smith, AIG’s chief financial officer, to explain the subpoenas, especially in light of comments by company executives as they discussed fourth-quarter earnings. “I wish I could clarify it,” Smith said. “It’s a fair question.”

Alcohol Lowers Food-Poisoning Risk

THE CLAIM: Drinking alcohol with a meal prevents food poisoning.

THE FACTS: Recent studies have found that a little alcohol may help ward off heart disease and slow dementia. But an old wives’ tale suggests another reason to indulge in a drink or two with dinner: preventing food poisoning.

Research over the years appears to confirm this. In 2002, for example, health officials in Spain studied an outbreak of salmonella among people who had been exposed to contaminated potato salad and tuna at a large banquet.

Their findings, which were published in the journal Epidemiology, showed that the rate of sickness was lowest in those who had consumed large amounts of beer, wine or spirits.

Consumers of larger amounts of alcohol also had the lowest levels of sickness documented in earlier studies of large salmonella outbreaks in Spain.

But some studies suggest that a drink may have to be stiff for alcohol’s protective effect to kick in. In a 1992 study, for example, health officials in the United States looked at an oyster-borne outbreak of hepatitis A and found that only drinks with an alcohol concentration of 10 percent or greater prevented or reduced the severity of the sickness.

Verizon Reaches Deal To Buy MCI

Verizon, the nation’s largest regional phone company, announced Monday that it had agreed to acquire MCI for about $6.7 billion in cash and stock, the latest merger in the rapidly consolidating telecommunications industry.

Verizon’s acquisition would end the independence of MCI, the nation’s second-largest long-distance company, with 14 million residential customers and about a million corporate customers.

“This is the right deal at the right time,” Verizon’s chairman and chief executive, Ivan G. Seidenberg, said in a statement.

During a conference call with industry analysts and investors Monday morning, Seidenberg said the combination of Verizon and MCI would provide great “scale and reach.”

“This makes us, without question, the solid No. 2 in the market,” he said. “We’re very excited to get going on this.”

While Seidenberg and Michael D. Capellas, MCI’s chief executive, spoke of continued growth and industry-leading service quality, Doreen A. Toben, Verizon’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said there would be job cuts.

“In total, we are targeting about a 7,000 head count reduction,” she said during the conference call. Peter Lucht, an MCI spokesman, said in a telephone interview that the positions being cut had not yet been determined, but that they could range from corporate staff to operations. He also said it had not been determined whether the cuts would be at MCI, Verizon or both.