WASHINGTON — President-elect Biden’s selection on Wednesday of Ron Klain, the former federal “Ebola czar,” as White House chief of staff immediately put a pandemic-response veteran at the highest levels of government.
The choice of Klain, a longtime Biden confidant who served as chief of staff to then-Vice President Biden during the Obama administration, is the latest signal that the president-elect is treating the pandemic as his top priority. Klain has sharply criticized President Trump’s response to Covid-19, and he warned early in 2020 — weeks before the coronavirus upended life in the U.S. — that the escalating outbreak would require an aggressive federal response.
Even since the onset of the pandemic, Klain, 59, has urged the U.S. government to pursue an aggressive and science-based strategy on Covid-19; criticized Trump for misleadingly downplaying the dangers of coronavirus and level of ongoing spread within the U.S.; and drawn on his time as President Obama’s “Ebola czar.”
He has called the World Health Organization’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014 “flaccid.” He has advocated for the creation of a federal pandemic-response coordinator for Covid-19, akin to his role during Ebola.
In 2014 and 2015, Klain oversaw a successful U.S. response to the emerging Ebola crisis in West Africa. His responsibilities ranged from advocating for the distribution of temporary cellphones to recent arrivals from Ebola-stricken countries to aid in contact tracing to serving as a liaison with local governments reluctant to let local facilities dispose of potentially infectious bodily waste from a U.S. patient. Though he was nominally the coordinator of the Obama administration’s outbreak response, he maintained a noticeably low profile, earning criticism from congressional Republicans and, once, from “Saturday Night Live.”
“Ron has lived, more than anyone else, the stresses that a dangerous pathogen puts the nation through,” said Christopher Kirchhoff, a senior fellow at the technology philanthropy Schmidt Futures who worked alongside Klain during the Obama administration’s Ebola response. “He’s been one of the voices that, even after he left the position of Ebola czar, has been most forceful in articulating what the nation needs to do to better prepare.”
Below, STAT highlights Klain’s most telling statements that hint at how he’d approach the current pandemic, and how Biden’s response is likely to differ from Trump’s.
- “Doctors, nurses and scientists beat diseases; but policy and planning and public health beat pandemics. Fighting a pandemic is a giant logistical challenge. And we’ve seen the failure of, kind of, the Trump administration’s management of that over the last four months. First, ignoring and denying the threat, refusing to centralize management of it in the White House, kind of leaving it at HHS, and then having a series of chaotic structures in the White House.”
— The Hill, June 15, 2020
- “The issue is whether this president — who likes to listen only to loyalists, who disdains experts, who rejects science and trusts his dubious instincts above all — will listen to these talented men and women. … Such a coordinator is necessary to manage an ‘all-of-government’ response, hold agencies accountable for their deliverables, and make sure a comprehensive funding package is being advanced on Capitol Hill.”
— STAT, Jan. 31, 2020, expressing support for a Covid “czar.’’
- “One of the key touchstones of what we did during the Ebola response in 2014-15 was to let science and expertise drive the response, and not let politics drive the response. And I think when you look at some of the travel restrictions that have been put in place by the administration right now, it’s really hard for me to see what the scientific basis is. Obviously having fewer people come here means less introduction of the disease, there’s no question about that. But the policies we’ve put in place right now restricts people based on the color of their passports. If you have a blue passport, you’re allowed to come. If you have another color of passport, you’re not allowed to come. I don’t think there’s a lot of science behind the color of someone’s passport being a determinant of whether they’re allowed into the United States.”
— Aspen Institute panel with NIAID’s Anthony Fauci, CDC’s Nancy Messonnier, and STAT’s Helen Branswell on Feb. 11, 2020
- “First, there needs to be leadership in the White House. President Barack Obama followed his designation of an ‘Ebola response coordinator’ in October 2014 with a permanent office on pandemic preparedness and response in 2015. While Trump maintained this structure into 2018, John Bolton abolished it when he took over as national security adviser. With threats such as the new coronavirus requiring an ‘all of government’ response — domestic and foreign; health and security agencies; federal, state and local authorities — someone needs to be in charge at the highest level of our government.”
— Washington Post op-ed with Nicole Lurie, former Obama administration pandemic-response official and Biden adviser, Jan. 22, 2020