As concerns mount over the coronavirus that first emerged in China, public health officials there and around the globe have launched a massive response.
The nature of that response has varied. In China, officials are trying to contain the virus. In countries that have seen local transmission, including Germany and Singapore, the goal has been to stamp out flare-ups. And in much of the world that hasn’t yet seen much spread of the virus yet, public health officials are readying a strategy in case they do.
So who’s leading the charge?
What follows is a list of some of the most important players, from a handful of the agencies involved. The list is hardly comprehensive. And selection is not meant to amplify these people’s importance over that of others.
In fact, some of the most vital responders do not appear here: the countless frontline health care workers who are trying to save lives and prevent new cases, all while putting their own safety on the line.
World Health Organization
Tedros, as the WHO director-general is known, took office on July 1, 2017. Since then the former Ethiopian health minister has shown himself to be a leader intent on walking the walk — traveling to outbreak zones, meeting with political officials and taking stock of the situation himself. In that spirit, he traveled to Beijing last month for consultations with Chinese health officials, and back in Geneva has presided over regularly WHO briefings on the latest updates. Tedros has been calling on the world to show solidarity in the face of the newest emerging disease threat. He, along with others at the WHO, have also gone out of their way to praise China’s response so far. Critics have accused Tedros of kowtowing to Beijing and overlooking major shortcomings in its handling of the crisis, including the initial response to the outbreak.
Ryan is executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program; last week he was also tasked with leading a United Nations crisis management team to coordinate the response efforts across the U.N. agencies. Though Ryan has only held the emergencies program top post for a little less than a year, he has decades of experience in responding to health crises and is a consummate field epidemiologist. An Irishman known for both his verbal fluidity and his bluntness on occasion, Ryan has regularly joined Tedros in providing updates on the outbreak. He was a key player in the WHO’s 2003 SARS response as well as the response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
Maria Van Kerkhove
Van Kerkhove is the WHO’s subject matter expert for coronaviruses. An infectious diseases epidemiologist with a strong background in emerging infectious diseases, Van Kerkhove has been the WHO’s lead on MERS, a coronavirus that has been sporadically sickening and killing people on the Arabian Peninsula since 2012. Prior to joining the WHO, Van Kerkhove was with the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Imperial College London.
Aylward, a former assistant director-general at the WHO, is leading the agency’s multinational WHO expert mission to China to learn more about the outbreak and how China is responding to it. A Canadian, he has held a number of leadership roles at the WHO, where he’s worked for nearly 30 years. He led the WHO’s polio eradication program, played a key role in WHO’s response to the 2014-2016 West African Ebola outbreak, and then helped design WHO’s health emergencies program, created as a result of the various postmortems of the WHO’s response to that outbreak. In China, he and his team are tasked with learning more about how the coronavirus is transmitted, the severity of the disease it causes, and the impact of how China has responded.
Xi, the Chinese president, drew early praise early in the outbreak, when he declared it “must be taken seriously” and that “party committees, governments, and relevant departments at all levels” should put people’s lives and health first. His response was seen as a notable signal from the top that China was going to be transparent and considerate in its handling of the outbreak — in contrast to the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, when the country concealed information about the spread of what was then another mysterious coronavirus.
Since then — as questions have been raised about China’s preparedness, the conditions for the tens of millions of people it has effectively quarantined, and whether officials silenced warnings about the scale of the outbreak — Xi has distanced himself from the response. He also dropped out of public view for a period. He stepped out in public again last week, complete with a mask and a fever check.
Gao is director general of China CDC. A virologist, he studied at Oxford and Harvard. He has published extensively on avian influenza, outbreaks of which have plagued China over the past 15 or so years, and on coronaviruses. He has already co-authored four published papers on the new virus. Gao has been a leader in efforts to control infectious diseases in China and has led China CDC’s efforts to help build public health capacity in Africa. He led a mobile laboratory testing team from China CDC that deployed to Sierra Leone during the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016.
Zhou, the mayor of Wuhan, has been among the Chinese officials to share the blame for the conflagration of cases now spread throughout much of China, and he has acknowledged that the city’s initial actions were “not sufficient.” He has also indicated that his higher-ups were trying to tamp down on the public release of information.
For now, Zhou is still in office. The same cannot be said for two other regional officials — the Communist Party’s provincial secretary in Hubei province, which encompasses Wuhan, and the party leader for Wuhan. Both were ousted from office last week amid rising anger over the response.
If Zhou hangs on, he could be largely responsible for steering the city to recovery once officials lift the quarantine, which has largely frozen the city for weeks.
Dr. Cao Bin
Cao, a pulmonologist, is among the clinical investigators running studies in China to determine whether drugs could help treat people infected with the virus. Cao is involved in testing of an antiviral that is being closely watched, remdesivir. Gilead, which developed remdesivir as an Ebola treatment, has shipped supplies of the drug to China.
Instead of appointing a “czar” to manage the U.S. response to the outbreak, President Trump tapped his health secretary to lead a task force consisting of officials from departments including health, state, transportation, and homeland security. Azar is a smooth messenger, but as the public face of the U.S. response, he’s had to reassure Americans that the immediate risk to them is low, even as the administration has imposed unprecedented quarantine and travel restrictions. Those travel policies violated the recommendations of the WHO and angered China as U.S. health officials were negotiating allowing U.S. experts into China to assist with the response and investigation. In other words, Azar is having to play communicator, epidemiologist, and diplomat — all while ensuring that he’s keeping his famously fickle boss satisfied.
Dr. Robert Redfield
Redfield is coming up on the second anniversary of his naming as the CDC’s 18th director. A longtime HIV researcher and clinician, he was the founding director of the department of retroviral research within the U.S. Military’s HIV Research Program; he later co-founded the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology. A member of the president’s task force, Redfield has spent quite a bit of time in Washington since the outbreak began. As of yet he hasn’t taken a large public messaging role, but that may be changing.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier
Messonnier is director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. As such, she has been at the center of a series of bad recent events — last year’s difficult flu season, the huge surge in measles cases in 2019 that threatened the U.S. status as a measles-free country, and the perplexing acute flaccid myelitis outbreak, among them. A quick thinker who at times seems impatient to get on with whatever task is at hand, Messonnier’s center has the lead on the coronavirus response and she is at its helm. Messonnier has also been the face and the voice of the outbreak for the CDC, conducting thrice-weekly briefings for the media.
Dr. Martin Cetron
Cetron is director of CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. He has worked for decades in the space where infectious diseases and global travel intersect, helping to build the invisible safety net that works to prevent the introduction of new diseases to this country. He is a member of the WHO’s emergency committee on the new coronavirus; he is also on the WHO’s emergency committee for the long-running Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Dr. Anthony Fauci
Fauci has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, leading the country’s research efforts in infectious diseases outbreaks going all the way back to the the emergence of AIDS — which is his own particular field of research. West Nile virus, SARS, bird flu, the flu pandemic of 2009, the West African Ebola outbreak, the Zika outbreak — Fauci has led top-notch scientists who race to develop new vaccines and therapies in response to outbreak after outbreak. In this outbreak, his institute’s Vaccine Research Center is collaborating with Boston biotech Moderna to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. For many politicians in Washington and the public beyond the Beltway, Fauci is the voice of authority when nature throws a new infectious threat at mankind.