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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 Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

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.

Micheal Ryan
Michael Ryan FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Dr. Mike Ryan

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
Maria Van Kerkhove PIERRE ALBOUY/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Bruce Aylward
Bruce Aylward FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Dr. Bruce Aylward

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 Jinping
Xi Jinping Naohiko Hatta - Pool/Getty Images

Xi Jinping

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.

George Gao

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 Xianwang

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.

United States

HHS Secretary Alex Azar
Alex Azar Alex Wong/Getty Images

Alex Azar

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.

Nancy Messonnier
Nancy Messonnier Samuel Corum/Getty Images

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.

Anthony Fauci - Jan 2019
Dr. Anthony Fauci Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

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.

  • The whole approach is a horrendous gong-show: * a whole ship quarantined with staff huddled in small cramped quarters yet serving food and roaming free is tantamount to a big live incubator (watch the numbers go up, and all survivors will need serious PTSD treatment) * in another country all disembark off another cruise ship and travel / go home with no controls whatsoever * the world has no grip on the origin country (numbers withheld until Dr Li’s texts and still questionable as the self-imposed rigorous quarantine rules imply the situation is MUCH worse) * will that culture (force) stop the eating of bats ? * what? no travel ban to very sensitive un-protected Africa? * money and politics seem to beat true human health protection action ……. count our lucky stars that (IF correct) the death rate seems to hold at about 2.5% only.

  • Regarding two church-related clusters in Singapore, I wonder what sort of behaviors are allowing for such easy transmission. Could it be hugging, kissing, and holding hands or, perhaps, communal meals, pot lucks, etc…

  • Wonder what’s going on with returning Westerdam passengers. It almost appears as if the CDC has given up, or is refusing to intervene after the State Department caused this historic public health blunder.

    First we had the Las Vegas couple not observing any sort of quarantine, and not having been told to do so. Now, there is an Oregon man arriving in Seattle, joking with reporters. No quarantine order. No CDC. Nothing. What’s interesting is that he was an entertainer on the ship, exposed to large numbers of people. CDC couldn’t seem to care less.

    You want to maintain confidence in your institutions, but then you allow obvious breaches. Can’t have it both ways.

    • The test was supposed to be done under CDC and WHO guideline, according to news. So there you go, they committed another big mistake.

      So maybe it is about time to change the head of CDC too.

  • So the test than was done under the guideline of WHO, according to Cambodia, was to test the 20 passengers who went to medical clinics of the ship because of some discomfort, in addition to taking everyones temperature. And then that is enough to declare the whole ship as coronavirus free. Stupidity can be deadlier than virus.

    The MS Westerdam parent company keep on saying all passengers are coronavirus free when they did’n’t do a cover-19 test on every individual. Never trust a company word. It is on their best interest for the passengers to disembark. Once passengers disembark, they have less responsibility and liability.

    China’s doctor already said not every infectious people will have fever. And how about taking some fever medicine so they can go out.

    The MS Westerdam who tasted positive for coronavirus was on her 80’s. You did be thinking that her symptoms will show earlier than 14 days given her age, given China latest article correlating age and coronavirus infection. They were almost 14 days on the ship. What is the point of waiting a few more days before disembarking. Also some people can take fever reducing medicine. Some people will probably do if it means not getting trap on the ship. It is safer to be treated in US than Cambodia. It is probably better to be treated of coronavirus in Malaysia than Cambodia.

    It would be nice if there is an investigation as to he why the patient, given her age, only show fever so late in the incubation period. Did she take any medicine before that and where was she infected. Was there other symptoms beforehand ?

    Then Thedros gave kudos to Cambodia for letting MS Westerdam disembark instead of waiting for 14 days on the ship. It is only a day or two if I am not mistaken. Boarded Feb 1 and then disembark Feb 12 or Feb 13. What is waiting two more days just to make sure? WHO with their stupid policy do more harms than good.

    Time to dismantle WHO. And why do you have a politician, in the person of Tedros, as the head of the WHO. I am sure there are more qualified people out there to head WHO and lead it to the right path.

  • Wasn’t the testing for the passenger on Westerdam was done under the guidance of WHO, and Thedros even give Kudos for allowing the Westerdam to dock. Now it turn our one woman saw tested positive in Malaysia and this create another global outbreak.

    I will be very worried if we leave everything to WHO. They seems to care more about politics than controlling a possible deadly pandemics. WHO is the evil of modern times.

  • I see no mention of anyone from Singapore, the best performer throughout this whole episode. They seem to be slowly snuffing out this disease. Their efforts have featured incredible determination at contact tracing, thorough quarantining of contacts, and excellent hospital care.

    They should really publish an online course for other countries to study.

    • Singapore approach is like whack a mole. Some infected people went to doctors office a few times before getting testing for coronavirus. Meanwhile, they go around infecting more people. Their contact tracing and openness is good. But since infected people are infectious during incubation period, or worse still if they are don’t show symptoms, their current approach will not work.

      They should follow China and US example. For people who are displaying flu like symptoms, just test them for coronavirus and asked them to quarantine. themselves.

      Their current approach will not work in controlling the coronavirus give what is now known about coronavirus.

  • Excuse me if I don’t applaud Tedros or Xi. Xi’s “top down” authoritarianism blocks information from the provinces filtering up. His personal insecurity and desire for total control are the root causes.

    As for Tedros, how much worse would the situation be had countries followed his advice to keep the planes flying. This guy as got to go. Clearly a China stooge.

    The Westerdam may be the CDC’s Waterloo. I wasn’t aware that they had ceded authority over domestic health policy to the glad-handing diplomats at the State Department.

    • As for Tedros, what are his qualifications? The only qualification I saw is that he was health minister of Ethiopia. The people below him seem to have excellent health-related qualifications. Why aren’t any mentioned for him? WHO site says he has a doctorate in Philosophy of Community Health. encyclopedia britanica says “Ethiopia’s health care system includes primary health centres, clinics, and hospitals. Only major cities have hospitals with full-time physicians, and most of the hospitals are in Addis Ababa. Access to modern health care is very limited, and in many rural areas it is virtually nonexistent.”

    • He was China’s candidate. He’s a stooge. Wonder what the fine people working under him must think of a leader who has no interest in protecting health. China attempts to bend every institution to its will.

  • Far be it from me to insinuate that I don’t trust our government(s) in most any matter much less matters that might kill me. We have governments who have always viewed killing as little more than a necessary evil and killing for profit seems to be every politician’s favorite past time. They even brag about killing so why should any of us trust that they might want fewer people to die from this than any other method of death?
    Just for the record, I really don’t believe one word coming from Washington nor Beijing in matters of much of anything.

    • The US CDC is generally a strong institution, although letting Westerdam passengers through LAX without so much as a conversation about self-quarantine really amplified the State Department’s typical self-serving idiocy.

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