When it comes to starting from scratch to fight a rapidly spreading global pandemic of a heretofore unknown disease, Ambassador Deborah Birx has been there.
The White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, Dr. Birx cut her teeth in public health with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, starting her career in immunology in 1985 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and rising to head the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief [PEPFAR] in 2014.
In naming her to the administration’s coronavirus task force last month, Vice President Mike Pence described her as a “world-renowned global health official and physician,” and that’s no exaggeration, according to others in the field.
Dr. Birx, 63, is “absolutely the right person” to lead the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, professor of infections diseases at the Emory University School of Medicine, who called PEPFAR “the most successful global health program ever.”
“I would give money to see a meeting between her and [President] Trump,” said Dr. del Rio. “She won’t stay quiet when she has something to say. She’s a tough lady. If anyone can talk truth to power, it’s her.”
At the daily White House press conferences on the coronavirus, Dr. Birx frequently draws comparisons between HIV/AIDS and the fast-spreading virus causing pneumonia-like symptoms that has killed more than 6,500 worldwide since emerging last year in Wuhan, China.
“We had another silent epidemic: HIV,” she said at Monday’s briefing. “I just want to recognize, the HIV epidemic was solved by the community, the HIV advocates and activists who stood up when no one was listening and got everyone’s attention. We’re asking that same sense of community to come together and stand up against this virus.”
The HIV/AIDS epidemic hit home for her in 1983. Immediately after the birth of her older daughter, her obstetrician ordered a blood transfusion, but she refused it based on her knowledge of the mysterious new infection that appeared to have contaminated the nation’s blood supply.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry told the story at her April 2014 swearing-in as ambassador-at large and U.S. global AIDS coordinator, according to the Vote Smart transcript.
“And literally, just before she passed out from pain, Debbi screamed, ‘Do not let them give me blood,’” Mr. Kerry said. “Her husband refused the transfusion, and it is a mighty good thing that he did. Because the hospital learned later that that the blood of her blood type — that they would have used — was contaminated with HIV.”
The White House Coronavirus Task Force will benefit from Dr. Birx’s ability to “do things when there’s no infrastructure and no program,” said Dr. del Rio, an investigator with the Emory Center for AIDS Research.
“I’ve never heard her say, we can’t do that. It’s always, we can do that,” he said.
Millennials ‘will stop this virus’
An Army physician, she reached the rank of colonel before retiring from the military, helping lead the influential RV 144 HIV vaccine trial and winning two U.S. Meritorious Service Medals and the Legion of Merit Award, as cited in her State Department biography.
Dr. Birx “has repeatedly demonstrated her unparalleled ability to control infectious diseases and is extremely well positioned to develop an effective plan to address COVID-19 in the United States of America,” said UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima in a Feb. 29 statement.
The elderly, infirm and immuno-compromised have been identified as the most susceptible to the coronavirus, but Dr. Birx on Monday described millennials as “the core group that will stop this virus.”
“Now why do I think the millennials are the key? Because they’re the ones that are out and about,” she said. “And they’re the most likely to be in social gatherings, and they’re the most likely to be the least symptomatic. And I think we’ve always heard about the greatest generation — we’re protecting the greatest generation right now, and the children of the greatest generation, and I think the millennials can help us tremendously.”
Another reason: Millennials are adept at communicating with each other without being in each other’s presence.
“They need to communicate with each other,” Dr. Birx said. “Public health people like myself don’t always come out with compelling and exciting messages that a 25-35-year-old may find interesting and something they would take to heart, but millennials can speak to one another about how important it is in this moment to protect all of the people.”
Questions have been raised about the task force’s divided leadership, given that Mr. Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also oversee the panel, but Dr. Birx has played an increasingly visible role in fielding public-health questions at press briefings.
She has a history with the panel’s other experts. On Monday, she deferred to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on a question about how long the virus can live on hard surfaces.
“He was my mentor so I’m going to have to let him speak,” she said with a grin.
Dr. Birx graduated from Houghton College and the Hershey School of Medicine at Pennsylvania State University. She has two daughters, Danielle and Devynn.
Other task force members include U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Robert O’Brien, assistant to the president for national security affairs; Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun.