WASHINGTON — In the wake of a pandemic that claimed more than 1 million American lives, Congress in December instructed the White House to create a new, permanent office to coordinate the government’s readiness for the next pandemic threat.
The White House hasn’t gotten around to actually getting it up and running.
The office was intended to be a permanent solution for the ongoing need for the White House to hire “czars” to handle public health threats like Ebola, AIDS, and Covid-19. But Biden hasn’t nominated anyone to lead it, just a month before a crucial turning point in the administration’s pandemic response.
The Covid-19 public health emergency will end on May 11, and the Washington Post first reported that date could lead to a formal unwinding of the White House Covid-19 response team. The process has already started, as several top pandemic response officials have departed in recent months. If the infrastructure isn’t retained in the form of a new office soon, mustering the political will to create a new office will only become more difficult as people move on from Covid and as the presidential election approaches, two pandemic response experts told STAT.
“The problem is that no one really wants to think about pandemics between when they occur,” said Ken Bernard, who worked in biodefense policy in both the Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who was a key architect of the law that created the pandemic readiness office, said it’s critical that the government has a team in place, ready to go 24/7, to coordinate pandemic preparedness and response efforts.
“I worked hard to pass my PREVENT Pandemics Act to ensure we have a permanent Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy. … As the administration works to wind down its COVID task force and stand up this new pandemic office, I’ll be watching closely to ensure that it fulfills its crucial mission,” Murray told STAT in a written statement.
The talking points out of the White House recently have been that the pandemic response is in a better place than it has been, and emergency response tools are no longer needed.
“It is a signal that we are in a different, and in a better place with Covid. That doesn’t mean Covid is gone, that doesn’t mean Covid’s not a problem, but that means that the emergency tools we needed to manage this virus are no longer needed in the same way,” White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha told WBUR last month.
But it’s unclear what the post-emergency infrastructure to address pandemic threats in the White House will look like under Biden.
The new director’s main responsibilities would be to advise the president on preparing for pandemics and other biological threats, to coordinate response activities across the federal government — including research into new countermeasures and distribution of medical supplies — and to evaluate the government’s readiness. The director would also be a member of the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council.
Biden’s current chief of staff, Jeff Zients, who is likely to make final decisions on how the office is set up, first joined the Biden White House as Covid-19 response coordinator.
The structure may be complicated, as some of the responsibilities overlap with the NSC Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense run currently by Raj Panjabi, Bernard said.
Still — “This new office has to be done. It’s law,” Bernard said.
A few different options include creating a new, freestanding office, combining it with the existing NSC directorate, or putting it under the Domestic Policy Council or the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said J. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the director of its Global Health Policy Center.
A White House spokesperson said in a written statement that the office’s structure is “under review.”
While Congress didn’t provide any new funding for the office in December, the Biden administration is in a unique position to resource the office internally, because it already employed people in-house to run the Covid-19 response. As of the White House’s most recent report to Congress in July, the White House directly employed 17 people with “Covid-19” in their job titles, and paid them $1.8 million in total. That total doesn’t include officials who are working at the White House who are on loan from other agencies. The law allows for up to 25 staff in the new office.
The provision that created the new office was part of a larger pandemic preparedness package assembled by Murray and former Sen. Richard Burr.
Burr told STAT that he thinks the White House response is moving in the right direction with the decision to end various emergency declarations soon, and says he believes the White House has bought in to creating a new office.
“I am confident that the White House will soon take step three: standing up the new pandemic preparedness and response office to ensure we remain vigilant against current and potential threats on the horizon,” Burr said.
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