Even if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves a coronavirus vaccine in the coming days, Massachusetts General Hospital will not recommend it to patients until it has been personally approved by Rochelle Walensky.
Dr Walensky is the hospital’s infectious disease manager, and her expertise in interpreting medical data is so respected by her colleagues that they want her to review vaccine trials before they can trust the doctors. results.
However, she is relatively unknown in Washington, making her selection Joe Biden’s choice to lead the besieged U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the most important, and perhaps the most important, surprises of the president elected so far.
“It’s completely out of left field,” said Barry Bloom, professor of public health at Harvard University. “I would love to know who the coronavirus task force knows it. She wouldn’t have been on anyone’s list.
Medical scientists said they were delighted to learn of Dr Walensky’s appointment. “I was in tears of emotion when I heard that she had been chosen,” said Gavin Yamey, professor of global health policy at Duke University.
“After four years in which the Trump administration has denigrated science, promoted anti-science ideas and interfered with the CDC in general, the scientific community is breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Mr. Biden announced his health team Monday, entrusting Xavier Becerra, California attorney general and former congressman, with responsibility for the health department and appointing Vivek Murthy as US surgeon general, a role he also held during the Obama administration.
Dr. Walensky’s choice to lead the CDC stood out, given that she had never previously served in government, except for some advisory positions at the National Institutes of Health.
His new role will make him one of the most public faces of the new Biden administration’s coronavirus response. And that will leave him responsible for restoring the funding and morale of a public health organization that was sidelined during the pandemic by a president who disagrees with his recommendations.
Peter Slavin, President of Massachusetts General Hospital, said, “She’s a really great communicator. She is very good at saying the right things to her audience, whether it’s a professional audience or the general public. This is going to be crucial for this role. “
Dr Walensky, who did not respond to a request for comment, rose to prominence as an HIV researcher, earning applause for his analysis finding that AIDS treatments had added nearly 3 million years to the lives of patients in the United States.
It was while working in this area that she met Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, whom Biden also intends to appoint to his inner circle of coronavirus advisers.
Dr Fauci told the Financial Times, “She’s the kind of personality, someone who is very inclusive, who would probably be very good for the morale of the CDC. It has been a difficult year.
His analysis of the HIV epidemic was that detection, prevention and early treatment were essential and that doing more to monitor the spread of the disease, while costly, could save money in the long run.
She came to the same conclusions earlier this year by focusing on Covid-19.
She was part of a team of researchers who modeled how the disease was likely to spread on college campuses when they reopened. The study found that the best and most cost-effective way to deal with the virus was to run low-cost tests on every student and staff every other day. Even though the tests were sometimes wrong, the model concluded that this was the best way to prevent generalized epidemics.
In the end, many universities chose not to follow such a path, and coronavirus cases increased in the fall when colleges returned.
Colleagues said Dr Walensky’s work on HIV had also boosted his interest in health inequalities – which Mr Biden has vowed to address.
When she appeared on US television as an expert on coronavirus, Dr Walensky often pointed out how the disease has hit ethnic minority communities the hardest. And she expressed concern that the type of antibody treatment that Donald Trump received when he fell ill with the disease, poorer patients who are less able to afford them might not be available.
“She talks a lot about racial inequality and gender inequality,” said Robert Goldstein, a colleague in the Massachusetts General Department of Infectious Diseases. “When we talk about the coronavirus vaccine distribution plan, for example, she talks a lot about how to reach the people who have been hit hardest.
While his biggest challenge will be to help curb the spread of the pandemic, Dr Walensky will also have to grapple with more mundane political issues, like pushing Congress to secure more funding for his new organization.
Earlier this year Robert Redfield, the outgoing CDC director, called for a doubling or tripling of CDC’s discretionary budget to just under $ 8 billion. A Senate Appropriations Committee bill recommended last month a budget increase about 2.5%.
She will also need to restore morale at the institution, where many of its senior executives have been battered by a series of battles with prominent figures in the Trump administration for everything from testing to travel advice.
Although her peers say she has the skills to lead CDCs for the long term, some fear her lack of political experience will make it more difficult to manage some of the institutional issues.
“She is an amazing communicator and is uniquely positioned to make a big difference at CDC,” Bloom said. “As soon as she understands what they’re doing.”