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John Bolton Disbanded Global Health Security Team in Charge of Pandemic Response Efforts

It is unclear what department or person is currently in charge of leading the U.S. response to a pandemic.



Pandemic Response

(TMU) — Dr. Dena Grayson, a medical doctor, researcher, and politician with years worth of training developing Ebola treatments under her belt, has expressed concern about a pivotal moment that was largely overlooked back in May 2018.

Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council starting in April 2017, was responsible for leading pandemic preparedness and response efforts but abruptly left the position in 2018. Following his departure, the team he oversaw was disbanded by then national security adviser John Bolton.

Jamil Smith, senior writing at Rolling Stone, likewise sounded the alarm on Monday.

A May 2018 article in the Independent said that the “breakup of his team, comes at a time when many experts say the country is already underprepared for the increasing risks of a pandemic or bioterrorism attack.” This statement is all the more real in January 2020 as the world faces what could be global pandemic as cases of 2019-nCoV continue to increase rapidly in China while spreading slowly across the globe.

According to Ronald Klain, who served as the U.S. Ebola response coordinator from late 2014 to early 2015 and was chief of staff to both Al Gore and Joe Biden during their vice presidential terms, Ziemer was forced out by John Bolton. 

Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer’s departure left no senior official in charge of global health security.

It is currently unclear what department or person may have taken over some or all of Ziemer’s responsibilities. However, U.S. President Donald Trump did release a “fact sheet” approximately one year after Ziemer’s departure and the disbanding of the team.

The May 2019 fact sheet states that, “President Donald J. Trump is taking action to protect America and our partners from infectious disease threats” by releasing the Global Health Security Strategy, a strategy the fact sheet claims is the first of its kind.

The strategy, which can be read here in full, will adopt “a whole-of-government approach” to national health security by combining the strengths of different departments and agencies and “defines the actions the Administration will take to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats, whether naturally occurring, accidental, or deliberate.”

In section IV, the strategy states that, in response to international outbreaks, it will:

Because an infectious disease can spread rapidly to all parts of the world, endangering lives and economies, the United States Government will continue to monitor and respond to international outbreaks through several mechanisms, including CDC’s Global Disease Detection Operations Center (GDDOC), CDC’s IDRRRF, and USAID’s Emergency Reserve Fund for infectious disease outbreaks (ERF).”

The strategy goes on to detail what each participating agency and department should do but does not highly who is in charge of the overall efforts, a task that likely would fallen on Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer. What’s more, while the strategy does note participation from the National Security Council, it does not indicate a person.

As seen in the screen shot below, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on national health issues and the U.S.’ involvement in global health policy, the position of Director for Global Health and International Development sits vacant—or at least was vacant on January 17 when the list was published or last updated.

However, Ziemer’s position was Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council (NSC)—a position that isn’t found on the list above. It is interesting to note that of the seven NSC global health positions included in the list, four of them are specific to weapons of mass destruction, biodefense, and biological threats while none of them are specific to overall global health.

Heather Cox Richardson, Professor of history at Boston College, said in a now viral Facebook post:

But the implications of the destruction of our government might well soon become terrifyingly clear. I actually wrote about the new coronavirus the day it was announced because it hit a number of issues that, as a historian, I thought were important. But I deleted the paragraph, afraid that readers who are already on edge would become unnecessarily worried (I did leave it in the notes for that day as a record for future scholars). For the purposes of this political record, though, we should note that the GOP project of dismantling the government means that we have not had anyone in charge of leading the U.S. response to a pandemic since May 2018, when Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council was pushed out during a shake up by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, who broke up the team designed to focus on global health security.

Strap in, folks. All signs suggest this is going to be quite a week.”

In a series of tweets Dr. Grayson has been detailing her concern regarding the coronavirus that is thought to have emerged in Wuhan.

  •  In addition to being highly contagious, this novel #coronavirus can cause a SEVERE infection that can kill even healthy people. It’s rare to see BOTH of these (bad) attributes in the same novel virus. Usually, it’s one or the other.
  • Thus far, the case-fatality rate appears to be ~4%…but its’ WAY too early to know what it really is, due to spotty reporting (both of deaths and cases), and because patients are still sick and could die tomorrow, next week, etc., even if no new infections occur.
  • I get asked: “How will I know if I have the #coronavirus?”
    Answer: it’s very hard to tell, because the symptoms are similar to having influenza — anywhere on the spectrum from a very bad cold to severe pneumonia with respiratory compromise.
  • #China has a history of not accurately reporting outbreaks, so it’s hard to know exactly what is happening, especially with no free press, internet, etc.
    China’s massive response is VERY telling and strongly suggests that the #CoronavirusOutbreak is VERY bad, especially in Wuhan 
  • Right now, the risk appears low in the US, with only a few isolated cases. Unfortunately, I expect that this will change, as more cases arise here, especially with global travel and how readily this #coronavirus appears to spread (via droplets in the air).

And most importantly, Dr. Grayson responds to questions on how the global population can best protect themselves.

It remains unclear what led to the ouster of Ziemer and Bolton’s disbanding of the team.

Following Ziemer’s departure from his position with the NSC, he returned to the controversial USAID where he was perviously led President Bush’s Malaria Initiative. Ziemer is now Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) at USAID.

By Emma Fiala | Creative Commons |

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