Pence taps career health official to coordinate White House coronavirus response

Vice President Pence on Thursday tapped longtime health official and ambassador-at-large Debbie Birx to serve as the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

Birx has worked for decades in the medical field, largely focusing on combating and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The staffing move is likely intended to appease calls from many lawmakers for the Trump administration to appoint a "czar" to oversee the federal response to the coronavirus.

"She has deep experience in coordinating across agencies," Pence's office said in announcing Birx's new role. "She has worked from the research bench to the clinic, but understands the primary focus must always be to reach the individuals most in need. She will bring her infectious disease, immunologic, vaccine research and interagency coordinating capacity to this position.

ADVERTISEMENT

Birx currently serves as the ambassador-at-large for the State Department coordinating the U.S. efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. An Obama-era appointee, she has held that role since 2014.

She has in the past served as a physician in the U.S. Army and as director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She spent nearly a decade as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Global HIV/AIDS.

Birx will be part of the White House's coronavirus task force and will be supported by the National Security Council. But she will report to Pence, who on Wednesday night was tasked with overseeing the federal government's response to coronavirus. 

Her appointment may soothe some concerns of the many Democrats who took issue with Pence being given significant authority over the coronavirus response despite a lack of public health expertise and his own struggles containing an HIV outbreak during his time as governor of Indiana.

The White House announced later Thursday that three more officials would join the coronavirus task force: Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinMurkowski pushes Mnuchin for oil company loans 17 things to know today about coronavirus The Memo: Scale of economic crisis sends shudders through nation MORE, National Economic Council Director Larry KudlowLawrence (Larry) Alan KudlowMORE and Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

The inclusion of Mnuchin and Kudlow in particular are a nod to Trump's fixation on the potential economic ramifications of the virus. The stock market has plunged in recent days amid fears over the spread of the disease, even as Kudlow asserted it was to "airtight" in its containment in the U.S.

ADVERTISEMENT

The White House has in the last 24 hours sought to project a unified front in its handling of the coronavirus amid criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike that it had not taken adequate steps to prepare for a possible outbreak.

Officials on Wednesday announced an additional case in the U.S., bringing the total number of cases to 60. That figure includes 42 individuals who were repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

The administration proposed $2.5 billion in additional funding to address the disease, though the final number is likely to be significantly higher following a push from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Updated: 12:52 p.m.