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White House Loses Global Health Security Lead as a New Ebola Outbreak Hits

This week, three things happened with painfully ironic synchronicity. First, the Democratic Republic of the Congo revealed that it is facing down its ninth Ebola outbreak. Second, President Trump asked Congress to rescind a $252 million pot that had been put aside to deal with Ebola. And third, global health expert Tim Ziemer unexpectedly departed the National Security Council, where he served as senior director for global health security and biodefense.

A retired rear-admiral who coordinated the President’s Malaria Initiative, which reduced global malaria deaths by 40 percent, Ziemer is highly respected by his peers and has been described as “one of the most quietly effective leaders in public health.” Health-security experts called his departure from the NSC a serious mistake—one that jeopardizes America’s already fragile state of preparedness against infectious threats.

Ziemer, among the various roles he took on since joining the NSC last year, was also overseeing the creation of the government’s long-awaited national biodefense strategy. Congress mandated such a strategy in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, with a deadline of March 1, 2017; over a year later, it has yet to arrive.

With Ziemer gone, oversight of the strategy now falls to Andrea Hall, the senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense, according to an administration official with knowledge of the matter. Hall had already been working side-by-side with Ziemer, both figuratively and literally—they sat in neighboring offices. Both testified before the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Panel for Biodefense in November last year, during which Hall said that, “Making America safer in the biosphere is a … key priority for this administration.”

Hall joined the National Security Council in June 2016, having served in government positions related to nuclear proliferation and weapons of mass destruction for the previous 13 years. She is well-versed in assessing the risks posed by nuclear, chemical, and—critically, for discussions of pandemic threats—biological weapons. “Andrea Hall is amazing,” says Thomas Inglesby, who directs the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “She’s a great person for that job.”

She also oversees the remaining members of Ziemer’s now-defunct directorate of global health security and biodefense—many of whom carry substantial expertise in pandemic preparedness. Luciana Borio, for example, is an infectious-disease specialist who is affiliated with Johns Hopkins Hospital, and has a wealth of experience leading epidemic responses at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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