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Why Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci are Uniquely Suited to Lead the COVID-19 Response

Bush Institute Executive Director Holly Kuzmich reflects on her personal experience working with Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci's leadership on PEPFAR

Article by Holly Kuzmich April 3, 2020 //   5 minute read
Dr. Deborah Birx speaks at a cervical cancer screening and treatment roundtable during a 2017 trip to Windhoek, Namibia with President and Mrs. Bush.

Turn on the television every day and you are going to find two people leading our nation’s public health response to COVID-19, Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Tony Fauci. Their task is enormous and unprecedented. Every day, they are charged with directing the guidance to our fellow citizens about how to slow the spread of this pandemic, coordinating resources across the government, reaching out to the private sector to address the preparedness of the health care system, and working with other public health officials around the world to stay on top of the latest updates and modeling of this pandemic. That’s just the start of it.

But I can think of two no more qualified individuals who are up to the task.  After we get through this pandemic, we’ll all do an analysis of what went well, what didn’t, and how we can be prepared for any future pandemics. But I feel confident that we have two of the most qualified people leading the public health response.

Dr. Tony Fauci has a long and distinguished career as the head of the National institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease since 1984. He’s dealt with AIDS, swine flu, anthrax, ebola, and now COVID-19, among many other infectious diseases.  He’s advised multiple presidents across the decades. Many of my old friends and colleagues from the Bush Administration had the honor of working with him on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and can’t speak of him highly enough. Dr. Fauci was one of the key architects of the plan and in 2008, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of accomplishments. We’re lucky that he’s still willing to serve as he is today.

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I’m privileged that I have been able to get to know Dr. Birx on a more personal level as a friend and colleague.  Up until a month ago, Dr. Birx had served as U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, leading the PEPFAR program.  I’ve worked with her and the team there very closely on our initiative on cervical cancer prevention in sub-Saharan Africa.

Her experience running PEPFAR is particularly helpful in her role as White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator. PEPFAR is a program that runs out of the State Department, and Dr. Birx holds the title of Ambassador as the head of it. That’s because she coordinates funding, people, and policies across USAID, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Defense, the Department of Health and Human Services, and many others.  Similarly, her job as coronavirus coordinator requires coordination among a vast array of government agencies, which takes leadership, decisiveness, and teamwork.

Prior to running PEPFAR, Dr. Birx ran the CDC’s Division of Global HIV/AIDS, and prior to that, had spent years in the military. When I interviewed her for The Strategerist podcast at the Bush Center, she talked about her military training and how helpful that has been for her roles in government. In the medical field, acquisition processes and budgets are not standard training—but it was for Dr. Birx as part of her time in the military.

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Through the work we do on cervical cancer, I’ve seen her in action. Her legendary use of data and PowerPoint slides has been reported on in recent news stories, and I can attest to that fact about her.  I remember her furiously editing her own PowerPoint slides full of data and results late at night preparing for her next day’s meetings. She’s driven data-based decisions at PEPFAR, increasing dollars to the places where HIV infection rates are the highest, and reducing funds where rates are low or non-existent.  It’s smart use of resources, and she’s known for it.

I’ve also gotten to see the way she engages with leaders and community members in Africa. While she is firm in her leadership and focus on results, she has an equal commitment to engaging community leaders and letting them drive solutions that are the best fit for each community.

I take great comfort in knowing she’s in her role. And while I’m glad the Administration recognized her talent by putting her in this role, I wish it were under far better circumstances. As you can tell, I’m a fan of hers and am rooting for her every day.