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Monday, February 6th, 2023

Spreading coronavirus forces U.S. administration’s targeted response plans

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, charged Wednesday night with leading the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic, has named a top AIDS expert to coordinate the response and clamped down on future outgoing coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists.

Dr. Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, applauded the move, noting the assignment of the vice president was the commission’s number one recommendation in its 2015 National Blueprint for Biodefense, which addresses America’s preparedness and response to man-made or naturally occurring biothreats.

“It should have happened sooner, but we know, it often takes a crisis to get things done in Washington,” George said.

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense in 2015 released A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts, which identified capability gaps and recommended changes to U.S. policy and law to strengthen national biodefense.

George pointed out that the report highlighted the fact that “the nation lacked a single, centralized, high-level leader to control, prioritize, coordinate, and hold departments and agencies accountable for national biodefense.”

“We recommended that the president institutionalize leadership of biodefense at the White House, with the vice president in charge … [to] direct and coordinate agencies, budgets and strategies across the government in a way that no other position can,” she said.

Late on Feb 26, that was the course taken by President Donald Trump when he announced Pence was in charge of the U.S. government’s coronavirus response efforts.

“Mike will be working with the professionals, doctors and everybody else that’s working. The team is brilliant. I spent a lot of time with the team over the last couple of weeks, but they’re totally brilliant, and we’re doing really well,” Trump said during a press conference yesterday evening at the White House. “And Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me. But he’s got a certain talent for this.”

Pence said during the press conference that he’s bringing together all the members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force recently established by the Trump administration: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. State Department.

“This team has been, at your direction, Mr. President, meeting every day since it was established,” said Pence, who added that as a former governor of Indiana, where the first MERS case emerged in 2014, he understands “the importance of presidential leadership … and the vital role of partnerships of state and local governments and health authorities in responding to the potential threat of dangerous infectious diseases.”

Up until this point, George said there’s been no centralized leader for U.S. biodefense.

“The fact remains that our federal government does not afford the biological threat the same level of attention as it does other threats,” she said. “There is only a nascent national strategy for biodefense, and there is no all-inclusive dedicated budget for biodefense, which became quite apparent this week with the sudden request for billions in emergency appropriations.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) earlier this week sent Congress a total $2.5 billion emergency supplemental spending request to fight the coronavirus outbreak, which U.S. government health officials warned will inevitably spread across the United States.

The funding would support all aspects of the U.S. response, including public health preparedness and response efforts; public health surveillance, epidemiology, laboratory testing, and quarantining costs; advanced research and development of new vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics; advanced manufacturing enhancements; and vaccines to bolster the Strategic National Stockpile.

Currently, no vaccine exists to prevent the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which is caused by a virus that has been named SARS-CoV-2, according to the CDC.

Part of the emergency supplemental funding requested includes $1 billion for vaccines, according to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who along with several top-level public health officials testified on Wednesday during a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing entitled, “The Fiscal Year 2021 HHS Budget and Oversight of the Coronavirus Outbreak.”

In addition to Azar, witnesses included Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of Food and Drugs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Dr. Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at HHS; and Dr. Robert Redfield, CDC’s director.

When asked by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) about how much more money it would take to produce a coronavirus vaccine, Dr. Fauci said that while they are in Phase 1 development now, it would take about $140 million to “get it over the hill.”

Rep. DeGette said the government shouldn’t be moving money away from fighting Ebola and other diseases to fight the novel coronavirus.

Fauci, who also was asked during the hearing about how long it takes to produce a vaccine, said it’s basically at least a year to a year-and-a-half to get something through clinical trials and prove that it works. Then, he said, it takes even longer to partner with pharmaceutical companies to get a vaccine manufactured.

U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) questioned ASPR’s Kadlec about whether the Strategic National Stockpile is sufficiently funded. Kadlec said the requested supplemental funding total includes another $400 million, which “would be a great benefit to help us address any shortfalls from this event.”

In fact, Rep. Brooks earlier in the day on Feb. 26 tweeted: “As co-lead on the passage of the Pandemic & All Hazards Preparedness & Advancing Innovation Act (#PAHPA), which was signed into law by President Trump in June 2019, I strongly urge the President to appoint a #coronavirus czar & who should ultimately serve on the @WHNSC.

“We must ensure global health security, #biodefense funding, speed in our decision making & coordination between our agencies when a pandemic outbreak strikes,” she continued. “As I’ve said in the past, it’s not a matter of “if” a pandemic outbreak occurs but a matter of “when” it will occur.”

Then later on Wednesday night, Brooks tweeted again in support of Pence being named to head the coronavirus efforts.

“Placing the @VP in charge of the fight against the #CoronavirusOutbreak is top recommendation of the 2015 Blue Ribbon Study Panel on #Biodefense,” now the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, tweeted Brooks. “I am pleased POTUS followed this #biparitsan recommendation of so many experts.”

“Glad to see @realDonaldTrump appoint @VP to lead the task force to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter (R-GA), also on Wednesday. “The greatest, smartest scientists in the world are right here in the United States and we must work together to address the situation.”

U.S. Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN) didn’t agree.

“The President claims the virus is “under control” while also planning to cut @CDCgov’s budget by nearly 20%,” Carson tweeted on Feb. 25. “This administration is dangerously unprepared to handle a potential #CoronavirusOutbreak, and the American people will pay the price.”

Pence today announced that Ambassador Debbie Birx will serve as the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator. A world-renowned global health official and physician, Dr. Birx is detailed to the Office of the Vice President and will report to Pence where she also will join the task force led by HHS Secretary Azar.

Currently, Birx serves as the U.S. government’s leader for combating HIV/AIDS globally and will continue to oversee this work, according to the White House.

Also today, the White House tightened control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to first clear all statements and public appearances with the Office of Vice President, according to the New York Times.

“While it appears Vice President Pence’s oversight responsibilities are limited to the coronavirus, we hope that President Trump ultimately puts the Vice President in charge of the entire biodefense enterprise,” pointed out George, “to ensure that our nation can defend itself against naturally occurring diseases like novel coronavirus, accidental releases, biological terrorism, and biological warfare.”