Jeffrey Koplan, the director who guided the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta through the country's first fatal bioterrorism attacks last fall, is stepping down on 31 March. Koplan unexpectedly announced his resignation in a statement yesterday.
Koplan did not give a reason for his departure in his statement. However, some public health experts, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say his departure may have been triggered by tensions between Koplan and top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about the way the CDC handled the anthrax crisis. In newspaper reports, Koplan denied that he was pressured to leave. HHS secretary Tommy Thompson called his departure a "loss," adding that "I am going to miss [Koplan's] counsel, leadership, and dedication to public service."
The anthrax-laced letters put unprecedented pressure on CDC, and Koplan was criticized by Congress and some media for not acting aggressively enough. The main problem, says Tara O' Toole, director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is that Koplan failed to become an effective spokesperson during the crisis. "Koplan is a very knowledgeable and credible doctor and the country would have been better off if it had seen more of him," she says. But some point out that it's unclear whether Koplan ducked the limelight himself, or was ordered to do so by the Bush Administration.
Koplan, who took the top job in 1998, has served CDC for decades. As a member of the agency's famed Epidemic Intelligence Service in the 1970s, he helped eradicate smallpox in Bangladesh, one of the scourge's last holdouts. In the 1980s, he was involved in fighting the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. Researchers also credit Koplan for doggedly supporting the rebuilding of public health infrastructure in the U.S. and upgrading old facilities at the CDC.