Story at a glance
- Dr. Deborah L. Birx is the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
- Appearing alongside President Trump and Vice President Pence at press conferences, she has been one of the top public health officials addressing Americans during the pandemic.
- The ambassador is known for her leadership during the HIV/AIDS epidemic starting in the 1980s.
Dr. Deborah Birx stands out on the podium of the White House press conference room. She's one of two women on the White House coronavirus task force. Next to the president and vice president as well as other top public health officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci in suits, her signature shirt dresses and scarves have been described as "classically feminine" and "modest but sophisticated" by Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan.
"Birx’s style speaks to her emotional intelligence. While the regular briefings are filled with folks in suits and uniforms — clipboard types who are very good at going through the motions of competence — Birx makes one feel like she’d be the one willing to put a cool compress to a fevered brow while everyone else was backing out of the room," Givhan wrote.
In fact, Birx is the mother of two children. But she's much more than that. She was a U.S. army physician, beginning her career with the Department of Defense as a military-trained clinician in immunology as the HIV/AIDS epidemic broke out in the U.S. She put herself through medical school at the Hershey School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and basic and clinical immunology at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“When you’re trained in medicine and it’s the 80s and you’ve got all this hi-tech stuff and this ability to diagnose everything, when you not only couldn’t make a diagnosis, you didn’t know what the problem was, and you didn’t know how to treat it, it was devastating, it was incredibly humbling,” Birx told the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
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In the following decades she emerged as a pioneer in the field, leading "one of the most influential HIV vaccine trials in history," according to her biography on the U.S. Department of State website. The RV144 trial, commonly known as the "Thai trial," was the first of its kind to show that a preventative HIV vaccine was possible.
Now ambassador-at-large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, she's taking on COVID-19 as the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She's been the one warning millennials that the coronavirus could be serious for them and that they play a central role in stopping the disease's spread. At the same time, she’s navigating a relationship with President Trump while on prime-time television, a job she’s well qualified for.
When President George W. Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in 2003, Birx was seeing the epidemic play out first hand in Kenya. She flew back and waited outside the townhouse of then-Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy Joe O'Neill to get a meeting with him. She had prepared a 180-slide PowerPoint to convince the White House the Army needed to be part of the relief effort.
As the COVID-19 outbreak hit the United States, she flew home again, this time from South Africa, to head the response team. While there was initial confusion over whether she or the vice president were heading the effort, Pence has described her as his “right arm.”
“She is somebody that knows how to manage the whole of the U.S. government to move it toward a particular goal. If the White House lets her do that, it could be exactly the kind of coordination that has been lacking up to this point,” Matthew Kavanaugh, who directs Georgetown’s Global Health Policy and Governance Initiative and knows Birx from his years working on global HIV policy, told The Hill.
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