Senator Seeks New White House Czar for Emerging Diseases

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By Jeannie Baumann

March 31 — The Zika virus outbreak underscores the need for a new White House czar to oversee all emerging disease threats, the top Democrat on a Senate global health panel said in a letter to President Barack Obama.

“[T]here should be a single person at the White House responsible for organizing policy and interagency efforts as well as liaising with our international and domestic partners in the face of the infectious disease pandemic,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said in the letter, which his staff released March 31. “It is important, in our increasingly interconnected and globalized world, that such a coordinating function is established and made permanent to address not only the immediate potential threat from Zika but the next, more dangerous and more easily communicable pandemic that will eventually hit home.”

Markey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, called on Obama to designate a position to oversee all emerging infectious disease threats, including the Zika virus, and to outline a plan that establishes a rapid response system and infrastructure to ensure the U.S. is prepared for the next global health threat.

A single point of contact is important, he said, “to optimize surveillance, leverage resources dedicated to researching vaccines, therapeutics and other countermeasures and to ensure the timely sharing of information that will be critical in early identification, isolation and response.”

“Rather than responding to each infectious disease outbreak anew, and developing protocols and systems that fade with time, we must build on the emergency investments made during the Ebola outbreak to create a sustainable health emergency preparedness model for the United States that can respond rapidly both domestically and internationally to the next health threat,” Markey's letter, which is dated March 28, said.

Pending Zika Funding Request

The request for an emerging diseases czar comes as Obama is trying to get Congress to authorize spending $1.8 billion to fight the Zika virus; Republicans instead want to re-appropriate Ebola virus dollars . The Zika virus, which has been spreading in more than 30 countries in the Americas, has caused alarm and caught the attention of lawmakers in recent months, primarily due to a possible link with a serious birth defect known as microcephaly.

The president had appointed Ron Klain as Ebola virus czar, but he left that position in February 2015 and is now the executive vice president and general counsel at the venture capital firm Revolution LLC .

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