Senate Democrats urge National Security Council to recruit pandemic expert for COVID-19 response

The absence of pandemic or global health expertise at the White House National Security Council and on the Trump administration's Coronavirus Task Force is prompting Senate Democrats to raise concerns about the quality of advice provided to President Donald Trump, as well as the potential for political priorities to outweigh public health needs.

Twenty-nine Democratic senators signed a letter sent Feb. 13 urging Robert O’Brien, U.S. National Security Adviser, to “appoint a qualified, dedicated, senior global health security expert to coordinate the United States’ global health security work.”

The NSC doesn’t have any staff with experience directly relevant to public health emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Trump administration has removed public health experts from the NSC and disbanded a unit established by President Barack Obama that was dedicated to pandemic preparedness and response.

Luciana Borio resigned as the NSC’s director for medical and biodefense preparedness policy in May 2018. The position has remained vacant.

Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer, who served in the NSC as senior director for global health security and biodefense under Obama and for the first year of the Trump administration, was shifted to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in July 2019.

David Wade, former Chief Medical Officer at the FBI, served as director for medical preparedness at the NSC from January 2019 to January 2020, when he was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. His NSC position has not been filled.

The Senate Democrats also expressed concern about the composition of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. It notes that O’Brien is a member, but he is “not a public health expert, and it is not clear if the NSC has such an expert in position to effectively advise or coordinate its global public health work on the Task Force and in other areas.”

Out of a dozen members, the task force has only two physician-scientists: Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other members of the task force include representatives from the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Transportation, as well as the Office of Management and Budget and other White House agencies.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn is not a member of the task force and he hasn’t played a major role in communicating with the public about the government’s response.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar has kept tight control over official communications about the COVID-19 outbreak. He has downplayed risks, overruling government scientists who are concerned that the virus may be spreading undetected in the U.S., according to Trump administration officials.

Further analysis of the coronavirus crisis can be found at https://www.biocentury.com/coronavirus. The COVID-19 content is free to all who visit the site.

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