Dr. Deborah Birx: Record And Background
Who is Dr. Birx?
Deborah L. Birx, M.D. is an award-winning physician and immunologist with three decades of experience in global health—specifically combatting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As Ambassador-at-Large, her responsibilities include being the U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy and Coordinator of US Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS. In this capacity, she heads up the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a massive global foreign aid program that has been highly successful in both gathering data and in helping to reduce the spread of that virus in 32 countries worldwide. Ambassador Birx was appointed White House Coronovirus Response Coordinator on February 26, the day the panel was created.
Even a cursory look at Dr. Birx’s work history demonstrates her apparent qualifications for this role. In the early 1980s, after completing medical school, she did an immunology fellowship at the National Institute of Health, where she met Dr. Anthony Fauci and worked in his lab. She spent her early career in the military, working on HIV/AIDS immunology at Walter Reed Hospital. She ultimately became Director of the US Military HIV Research Program, where she led the Thai vaccine trial—the first to demonstrate efficacy of an HIV vaccine. In 2005 she was appointed Director of CDC’s Division of Global HIV/AIDS(DGHA), serving in that capacity until 2014, when she was appointed to head up PEPFAR. She continues to hold that position along with her current COVID-19 assignment.
During her entire career, Dr. Birx has excelled at bringing disparate and competing agencies together to solve the problems associated with the AIDS pandemic. She is renowned not only as an expert in global health but also as someone adept at negotiating the currents of politics in order to keep moving towards her objectives. She is also a deeply committed family person, and when she’s not with her husband in their Washington home, she shares a multi-generational household with her husband, her parents, her daughter, and son-in-law, and her grandchildren. By all accounts, she brings this family warmth and personal touch to everything she does. However, as the next section will show, there have been some questions raised about how she is handling her current role.
What does Dr. Birx do as coordinator of the coronavirus task force?
Dr. Birx’s assignment with the task force is to bring her interagency skills along with her scientific, research, and project management abilities to the task of alleviating the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. She reports to Vice President Pence, and works alongside HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Fauci. She is currently participating in the televised daily updates, joining Dr. Fauci in answering scientific and technical questions. She has also been doing interviews with various media outlets, meeting with lab CEOs, and traveling with VP Pence to current hotspots to consult with medical professionals facing daunting challenges.
Other than that, since we don’t get to peek behind the at what the task force actually does when they are not conducting daily updates, we really don’t know many specifics. Given Dr. Birx’s track record with PEPFAR, one would imagine that she is insisting on rigorous data gathering in order to target solutions where they are most needed, and coordinating efforts to come up with a vaccine. Most recently, the Washington Post reported that she led her team in an extensive analysis of 12 models for how the virus might behave depending upon different mitigation strategies. According to Dr. Birx, they then “went back to the drawing board...and worked from the ground up, utilizing actual reporting of cases. It’s the way we built the HIV model, the TB model, the malaria model.”
Whatever the nitty-gritty may be, some question whether she is really the right person from the job, fearing that her approach to a slow-moving, sexually transmitted HIV/AIDS is not remotely appropriate to the highly infectious freight-train of COVID-19 bearing down on the American people.
She has also been coming under social media fire lately for appearing to excuse Donald Trump’s effort to downplay the effects of his failures to contain COVID-19, reasserting some of his controversial talking points as to how well the administration is doing and how everything is under control. Some accuse her of being a sellout, since she made a public statement to the effect that there is no evidence that hospital beds and ventilators will be in short supply, contrary to many current reports from overwhelmed hospitals and governors. Others argue that she did that because she is politically savvy and knows how to pick her battles so she can keep doing her work for maximal results.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
How did Dr. Deborah Birx handle the AIDS pandemic?
In 2014, President Obama appointed Dr. Birx—who was then heading up the CDC’s DGHA—to be the US global AIDS coordinator, an ambassador-level post that put her in charge of PEPFAR. At that point in time, the program was flailing, flat-funded, and in danger of being cut. She worked within these constraints to turn the program around by insisting that participating countries redo their budgets and provide district and clinic-level data so that specific hotspots could be targeted for best efficiencies. Her approach was data-driven and implemented “geographic prioritization”—only those areas where tests were revealing the presence of HIV got American aid.
Ambassador Birx’s leadership approach is top-down, a tad “my way or the highway.” In short, she took over, and whatever autonomy countries and Americans working there had enjoyed prior to her tenure was axed. Not everybody was happy with this, by any stretch of the imagination. She has been accused of being autocratic. Even so, her results were unimpeachable: even without an increase in funding, the program’s finances were balanced and the three competing US agencies (CDC, USAID, and the DOD) who worked on the program aligned with her goals and methods. Under her leadership, more than 14 million HIV patients have been put on antiretrovirals in more than 32 countries. She also created a public-private partnership dedicated to lowering infection rates among adolescents—DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe).
What presidents has Dr. Deborah Birx advised?
Ambassador Birx has been working in the field of global HIV/AIDS immunology and response for three decades. During that time she has served under six presidents, both Democrats and Republicans—Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump. As her career progressed, her role with respect to advising presidents did too:
- Ronald Reagan: military HIV/AIDS researcher at Walter Reed Hospital.
- George H.W. Bush: Department of Retroviral Research at Walter Reed
- Bill Clinton: Chief of Department of Retroviral Research at Walter Reed to 1995, and beginning in 1996 Director of US Military HIV Research program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
- George W. Bush: Chief of US Military HIV Research program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research until 2005. Then Director of CDC’s Division of Global HIV/AIDS in its Center for Global Health.
- Barack Obama: Appointed as Ambassador at Large to US Global AIDS Coordinator position, running PEPFAR.
- Donald Trump: Coronavirus Response Coordinator for White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Personal details and contact information
- Age: 65
- Birthday: April 4, 1956
- Religion: None listed
- Hometown: Born and raised in Pennsylvania, currently divides her time between Washington, DC and Potomac, MD
- BS in Chemistry, Houghton College, 1976
- MD, Hershey Medical Center, Pennsylvania State University
- Internship, residency in internal medicine, and two fellowships in clinical immunology (in Dr. Fauci’s lab), Walter Reed Army Medical Center
- Awards: Legion of Merit
- Military Rank: Colonel
- Spouse: Paige Reff
- Twitter: None
- Professional contact details: Not published
The Rantt Rundown
Dr. Deborah Birx—physician, immunologist, scientist, and Ambassador-at-Large in charge of the massive and global President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)—was appointed as White House Coronovirus Response Coordinator on February 26, the day the panel was created. She brings a wealth of expertise, experience, and political chops from her three-decade career combatting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. On the surface, she seems perfect for the job. But she has lately come under fire for supporting Trump’s talking points, which minimize the risk to Americans. And some experts worry that she’ll use the successful approach she took with HIV/AIDS—a slow-moving, sexually transmitted virus—and that would be misguided when combatting the fast-moving, highly contagious, relatively unknown novel Coronavirus illness COVID-19.