President-elect Joe Biden has moved to fill two top health positions in his administration, his transition team announced today. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will be nominated as secretary of health and human services (HHS), and HIV/AIDS researcher Rochelle Walensky of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital has been selected to direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Biden’s choice of Walensky has drawn widespread praise from infectious disease and public health experts, who say her experience as a physician and AIDS researcher and her communication skills will serve her well as director of the country’s premier public health agency during the COVID-19 pandemic. “She’s an outstanding choice. It’s a bright future for the CDC,” says James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, a former director of CDC’s HIV/AIDS division.
Walensky shared her reaction to the nod on Twitter: “I began my medical career at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and I’ve spent my life ever since working to research, treat, and combat infectious diseases. I’m honored to be called to lead the brilliant team at the CDC. We are ready to combat this virus with science and facts.”
Becerra is an attorney with no health background, but he served on a House of Representatives committee that oversaw the Medicare and Medicaid programs as a 12-term member of Congress. As California attorney general, Becerra has led efforts with other states to defend the Affordable Care Act and women’s reproductive rights.
As a physician and epidemiologist, Walensky is a conventional choice for CDC director. Her specialty is AIDS research, including promoting HIV testing, developing treatments in South Africa, and modeling the cost effectiveness of giving groups vulnerable to HIV drugs to prevent infections. In the past year, she has advocated strong action to control spread of the coronavirus, as well as large-scale viral surveillance using rapid tests at universities and elsewhere.
“She’s somebody who is an incredible leader in infectious diseases globally and particularly in HIV,” as well as a “clear communicator” on COVID-19, says Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. “All of those qualities are really important.”
“I was surprised but elated because you couldn’t do any better, and it’s not just because I know her,” says Yale University public health epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, who in October co-authored an opinion piece with Walensky criticizing President Donald Trump’s views on herd immunity’s role in managing the pandemic.
Under Director Robert Redfield, CDC has struggled to issue clear public health messages about COVID-19, amid pressure from the Trump White House to downplay the pandemic’s impact. Walensky will need to help oversee an unprecedented vaccination campaign, and “beyond the pandemic, she will face enormous challenges in upgrading the scientific capabilities and the credibility at CDC,” says Barry Bloom, a researcher and former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I have no doubt she will provide the leadership required,” he adds.
Biden’s announcement today formalized previously disclosed appointments, including his intention to make National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci his chief medical adviser on COVID-19 and to appoint physician Vivek Murthy, U.S. surgeon general during the Obama administration, to return to that post. The HHS and surgeon general positions require Senate confirmation.
With reporting by Lila Guterman.