Biden Picks Retired General to Lead New White House Pandemic Office

The News

President Biden has picked Dr. Paul Friedrichs, a military combat surgeon and retired Air Force major general who helped lead the Covid-19 response at the Pentagon, to head a new White House office created by Congress to prepare for and manage future biological threats.

The White House announced the appointment on Friday and said it would take effect on Aug. 7. It will then be up to Dr. Friedrichs to set up the new office, the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy, although the administration has christened it with a shorter Washington acronym: O.P.P.R.

The appointment comes after a lengthy search for a director that ended where it began — at the White House, where Dr. Friedrichs recently joined the staff of the National Security Council as the senior director for global health security and biodefense. Before that, he served as the Joint Staff surgeon at the Pentagon, providing medical advice to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His planned selection was reported last week by The Washington Post.

Dr. Paul Friedrichs at the Pentagon in 2021. He retired from the Air Force as a major general and recently joined the staff of the National Security Council.Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Why It Matters: Future health threats loom.

The coronavirus pandemic has often been described as the worst public health crisis in a century. But experts agree that given current migration patterns and the way humans intersect with animal life, it will not be a century — and it might not even be a decade — before the next pandemic arrives.

The era of Covid “czars” is over. Mr. Biden’s first White House coronavirus response coordinator, Jeffrey D. Zients, is now the White House chief of staff. The second coordinator, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, has gone back to his position as dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Covid-19 made clear that a biological health threat does not respect boundaries — including the boundaries that divide federal agencies. The appointment of Dr. Friedrichs signals a more permanent and coordinated effort to prepare for and respond to pandemics — one that will last beyond the Biden administration and will be centralized within the White House.

Background: Dr. Friedrichs served decades in the Air Force.

In a February speech, Dr. Friedrichs, who retired from the military in June, reflected on his 37-year career in the Air Force and shared a bit about himself. His father served in the Navy at the end of World War II, and his mother was a Hungarian freedom fighter whose parents were killed by the Russians. His wife was an Army doctor when they met.

He also reflected on the role of the military in fighting Covid-19, an effort that included helping to develop and distribute vaccines and providing medical support to struggling hospitals. “The military health system became the pinch-hitter that stepped in to help our civilian partners as we collectively struggled to work through that pandemic,” he said.

What’s Next: The job will focus on preparedness.

Dr. Friedrich’s new position gives him authority to oversee domestic biosecurity preparedness. He will need to work on the development of next-generation vaccines, ensure adequate supplies in the Strategic National Stockpile and ramp up surveillance to monitor for new biological threats.

He will also have to work with Congress to secure funding for preparedness efforts. Lawmakers created the new White House office as part of a government spending package enacted late last year.

“When President Biden came into office, we inherited a once-in-a-generation public health and economic crisis but no plan to get us out of it,” Mr. Zients said in a statement. “This office — under the strong and capable leadership of Major General Friedrichs — will lead the charge to ensure that never happens again.”

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