WASHINGTON — The era of the rotating cast of public health czars at the White House may finally be over.
Presidents for decades have brought fresh faces to the White House to coordinate federal responses to threats such as Covid-19, mpox, Ebola, AIDS, and the bird flu.
Now, Congress aims to give pandemic response a permanent home at the White House.
Next year’s government funding package includes a brand-new White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy that would have a director appointed by the president and up to 25 staff members.
“They’re not simply going to retire the role that [White House Covid-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha] plays when the emergency declaration ends,” 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. “You can’t just keep piling on coordinators, disease by disease.”
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.
“The functions outlined are exactly what is needed at the White House, and what I’ve been calling for for years, to avoid having any single agency take the lead on something that overlaps most departments in the U.S. government,” said Ken Bernard, who worked in biodefense policy in both the Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses.
Some of the responsibilities of the new office seem like they overlap quite a bit with the existing NSC Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which is currently run by Raj Panjabi, Bernard said. Morrison also said there could be a consolidation effort to ensure global and domestic responses are coordinated under the new office.
Neither the White House nor the National Security Council responded to an inquiry about the role of the new office.
It’s also unclear from the legislative text whether the office would have its own budget.
One of the most important factors for the new office’s success would be whether officials leading the defense and health departments truly believe that the new director actually has the backing and authority of the president to direct spending plans and coordinate resources, Bernard said.
“The president will have to be clear that this director speaks for me,” Bernard said.
Demands on the new office would start right away. Within the first year of the office’s operation, the director would have to compile a preparedness outlook report that would be made public. The director would also lead an interagency working group to evaluate biosecurity and preparedness.
The office would include an “industry liaison” at the beginning of response to a health threat to coordinate private sector involvement in any response efforts.
The provision that would create the new office was part of a larger pandemic preparedness package assembled by Senate health committee leaders Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.). Lawmakers are aiming to pass the broader government funding package by Friday to avert a shutdown.
“We routinely underinvest in, and underappreciate, these key dimensions of preparedness. Having a pandemic response office, with a director appointed by White House, is an important development,” Morrison said.