The Biden administration is creating a new department within the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate the country’s response to pandemic threats and other health emergencies, acknowledging that the department is structurally ill-equipped to deal with disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic. .
The change, announced internally on Wednesday, will elevate an existing office — that of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, known as ASPR — into its own operating division, the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response.
The move effectively creates a new federal agency — on par with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration — that will be responsible for critical health logistics, including overseeing the nation’s strategic stockpile, the country’s emergency medical reserve. , and contracting and distributing vaccines in an emergency.
The goal is to increase the agency’s authority and consolidate its powers so that it can act as a counterpart to the CDC, the FDA and the National Institutes of Health, all of which manage different aspects of an emergency response. But it could also create tensions between those agencies — which have their own campuses outside of Washington — and the new division, which will operate from HHS headquarters in the capital.
“This change will enable ASPR to more quickly and stably mobilize a coordinated national response during future disasters and emergencies, while equipping us with greater contract hiring and contracting capabilities,” wrote Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary. Preparedness and Response, to employees Wednesday in an email announcing the change, first reported by The Washington Post.
At first glance, elevating an office to a division may seem like a bureaucratic reshuffle in Washington. But those familiar with the change say the new division will build on the work the Preparedness and Response Agency is already doing, including the capabilities it has built during the pandemic.
In 2018, ASPR was put in charge of the national stock; it had previously been led by the CDC, which vehemently opposed the move. The stock was short on basic supplies at the start of the pandemic, including ventilators, masks and other protective equipment, and today is a harrowing example of the failures of that early response.
Ms. O’Connell also oversees the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is responsible for developing innovative vaccines and therapies. That agency came into the limelight in 2020, when President Donald J. Trump fired its director.
But at the start of the pandemic, ASPR’s deputy secretary was unable to contract with companies to buy vaccines, and was forced to rely on the Department of Defense to purchase and distribute the injections. By elevating the office to an operating division, it could take over some of those responsibilities, say people familiar with the move. Ms O’Connell said the new recruiting and contracting authority would be introduced “over time”.
In her memo, Ms. O’Connell said her office’s newer “missions,” such as overseeing the national supply, “pushed it against the limits of a typical human resources department.”
The decision appeared to surprise some top federal health care officials, including at the White House and CDC, senior officials said.
Lawrence Gostin, a former CDC adviser who heads the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said Wednesday’s announcement was “more than a little vague, which makes it even more frustrating.”
“It is always tempting when an agency underperforms to sideline it or reassign its key functions to another agency, or even demote it, which I believe will happen as a result, when the right answer is to fix it,” he said. “Instead of bringing the agency back to its priority days, we slowed it down. I think the Biden administration and future administrations will regret the day they clipped CDC’s wings.”
A CDC spokeswoman said the agency “supports Assistant Secretary O’Connell’s vision for ASPR — a critical partner for us in tackling public health threats.”
“We will continue to work closely to promote and protect the health of the American people,” spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said.
dr. Luciana Borio, a former acting chief scientist at the FDA and an official on the National Security Council, said the office was always intended to be a more strategic arm of the federal health bureaucracy than an operational one.
“We have to be careful not to burden the new entity with operational responsibilities,” she said. “We have to deploy the entire government for that.”
“We’ve seen time and time again that it’s not about a single entity responding” in a pandemic, she said.
If the change at HHS shifts authority or responsibility, she added: “I’m afraid it will be unclear who is in charge and it will cause more confusion. The CDC is essential to the response. Any act that further erodes the CDC’s role will be harmful.”