Transition 2017: PEPFAR and Global Health, NIH leaders remain in place for now

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Senate committee to vote today on Secretary of State nominee Tillerson, while hearings continue on HHS nominee Price this week

United States Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Deborah Birx and National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins are among the several dozen high-ranking department and agency officials asked to stay in their posts following the inauguration of President Trump Friday, at least until the appointment of new Cabinet officials. The announcement was welcomed by global HIV research and response advocates, as well as domestic nonprofit patient and research advocacy organizations who had urged the incoming administration not to allow the momentum spurred by the leaders to be interrupted.

Ambassador Birx, a physician, researcher, and former leader of  the U.S. Military HIV Research Program and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Global AIDS Program, has overseen an acceleration of responses by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that world wide experts have said are critical to controlling HIV as a global health threat within the next decade and a half. PEPFAR, which has been strengthened by broad bipartisan support since its launch in 2004 by former President George W. Bush, has made life-saving antiretroviral treatment accessible to 11.5 million people, allowed 74.3 million people to be tested for HIV and receive HIV prevention and treatment counseling, and allowed 2 million babies to remain free of HIV, who otherwise would have acquired the virus. That success, however, advocates have pointed out, has led only half-way to the finish line of controlling the pandemic. With global efforts leading to a total of more than 17 million people on the treatment that prevents illness and transmission, another 18.5 million people living with HIV still need access to the medicine. Advocates credit Amb. Birx’s data-based strategies to reach populations at highest risks and lowest access to services with maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of PEPFAR responses.

Advocates also have cited comments from the Senate and House committee members extolling Dr. Collins expertise, leadership, and relationships with Congress in urging the new administration to retain the NIH Director in his post, saying the research investments he has led resulted in jobs and economic growth.

In addition, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of CDC during 2015-2017, who served as Chief Health Officer for CDC’s 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza response and led the CDC team responding to the SARS outbreak in Beijing in 2003 is now the acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while USAID policy bureau head Wade Warren will serve as acting Administrator of USAID.

In the meantime the transition continues, with a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Secretary of State nominee former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at 4:30 today, and a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Department of Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price Tuesday at 10 a.m. A Jan. 18 Senate HELP Committee hearing on the House Representative’s nomination focused on discounted stock trades and investments he had made in biotechnology companies, and about the Trump administration’s plans to replace the Affordable Care Act.

In other transition news, President Trump today signed an executive order reinstating the “global gag rule” barring overseas nonprofit organizations that receive U.S. support from providing abortion information, referrals, counseling or services. The policy was launched by President Ronald Reagan, overturned by President Bill Clinton, reinstated by President George W. Bush, and last overturned by President Barack Obama.

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