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Deborah Birx, AIDS researcher, takes a prominent role in coronavirus messaging for Trump administration

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- When the urgent phone call came last month, respected HIV researcher Deborah Birx was meeting with African officials and activists from around the world at a Johannesburg conference to help determine how U.S. AIDS relief funding would be doled out.

It was the White House calling.

Birx was on the next flight out, headed home to Washington to become coordinator of the Trump administration's new corornavirus task force.

Ever since, the tough-minded, data-driven scientist has become one of the administration's key messengers assuring anxious Americans, and one of the daily public faces on television -- often framed by colorful scarves -- standing behind Trump and speaking at the lectern.

She and her mentor, Anthony Fauci, head of infectious disease at the National Institutes of Health, have become crucial voices of science and caution, at times contrasting sharply with Trump and other administration officials eager to downplay the risks.

Supporters say she has brought a cool head and credibility to news briefings often muddled with misinformation and contradictions from the politicians.


"It is probably really tough," said Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV for the Kaiser Family Foundation. "You're dealing with an emergency like we have never faced -- and having to navigate the politics."

An immunologist, world-renowned global health expert and U.S. Army colonel, Birx is a rare holdover from the Obama administration. Birx also serves as the State Department's ambassador-at-large for global health and heads the world's single largest AIDS program, the $85 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, created in 2003 by President George W. Bush.

Those who know her said she managed to establish and maintain good relations with Vice President Mike Pence, who said she was his first call when Trump asked him to lead the government's coronavirus response. He has called her his "right arm."

Along with most others who have appeared at the White House lectern with Trump, Birx has heaped praise on the president and rarely contradicted him in public, even when some of his statements seem at odds with hers. That has led to some backlash on social media among those who say she's undermining her own message and risking her reputation.


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