Debbie Birx, AIDS Expert, To Help U.S. Coronavirus Response The White House had rebuffed suggestions to name an official "czar" to lead the coronavirus response. But on Thursday, Vice President Pence announced Birx would coordinate the administration's effort.
NPR logo White House Names AIDS Expert Debbie Birx To Help Lead Coronavirus Response

White House Names AIDS Expert Debbie Birx To Help Lead Coronavirus Response

U.S. global AIDS coordinator Debbie Birx was named as Vice President Pence's point person on the coronavirus response on Thursday. Riccardo Savi/Getty Images hide caption

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Riccardo Savi/Getty Images

U.S. global AIDS coordinator Debbie Birx was named as Vice President Pence's point person on the coronavirus response on Thursday.

Riccardo Savi/Getty Images

Updated at 5 :45 p.m.

The White House sought to show it was shoring up its efforts to corral the spread of coronavirus on Thursday, naming an internationally recognized HIV/AIDS expert as its new coronavirus response coordinator.

Debbie Birx is a State Department ambassador-at-large who works on global health diplomacy issues. Vice President Pence said Birx would be detailed to his office.

President Trump put Pence in charge of the response after the stock market plunged and federal health officials warned that Americans should prepare for disruptions if the new COVID-19 coronavirus worsens in the United States.

The issue has quickly become political, and Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail have panned Trump for minimizing the risks and failing to appoint a "czar" to lead to the response.

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Birx will also join Trump's coronavirus task force, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, which is charged with responding to the virus. On Thursday, Pence also bolstered its ranks by adding Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump's economic adviser Larry Kudlow — signaling concerns about the growing economic threat posed by the virus. Surgeon General Jerome Adams will also join the task force, Pence said.

Pence toured the Health and Human Services operations center with Secretary Alex Azar after a coronavirus task force meeting. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

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Andrew Harnik/AP

Pence toured the Health and Human Services operations center with Secretary Alex Azar after a coronavirus task force meeting.

Andrew Harnik/AP

Birx directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's global HIV/AIDS division before she became the U.S. global AIDS coordinator in 2014.

Her new role was applauded by former President Barack Obama's Ebola response coordinator Ron Klain, who was less formally known as the "Ebola czar." But Klain — a close adviser to former Vice President and current Democratic primary candidate Joe Biden — noted there are now layers of top responders to the virus.

Pence sought to make clear on Thursday that he was in charge. "I'm leading the task force, will continue to rely on the secretary's role as chairman of the task force and the leader of Health and Human Services," Pence said after meeting with the task force.

"But the president wanted to make it clear to the American people that we're going to bring a whole-of-government approach to this," he said.