Jeff Zients to step down as White House Covid tsar

Jeff Zients is stepping down as chief Covid-19 adviser to President Joe Biden having steered the US through the pandemic and overseen one of the largest public health crises in American history.

Zients, a former business executive who also worked in the Obama administration, has been at the centre of Biden’s White House since the president took office last year.

The White House said on Thursday he will return to private life and will be replaced by Dr Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Biden said in a statement: “Jeff spent the last 14 months working tirelessly to help combat Covid. He is a man of service and an expert manager. I will miss his counsel and I’m grateful for his service.”

Zients was an unexpected pick to lead Biden’s Covid response, given his background in finance rather than medicine or science.

Early in his career he worked for Bain Consulting, before going on to run a healthcare research company called Advisory Board. He earned millions of dollars taking both Advisory Board and its spin-off, the Corporate Executive Board, private.

Zients went to work in the Obama White House in 2009 and was credited with helping fix a litany of problems with, the insurance exchange website used to distribute the policies offered under the Affordable Care Act. After that he went back into the private sector as chief executive of Cranemere, a private equity group — an industry that has recently come under fire from progressives such as Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator.

Zients’s background in finance drew scepticism from progressive campaigners, who say he has failed to tackle the power of large pharmaceutical companies and secure sufficient vaccine supplies for developing countries. Other experts criticised the administration’s response to the Omicron wave earlier this year, accusing officials of reacting in a slow and occasionally muddled way.

However, Zients has also overseen the biggest vaccination drive in US history, helping push the country’s rate of fully vaccinated adults to 65 per cent. He has also helped restore some trust in US public health officials who were regularly criticised by former president Donald Trump.

He leaves the White House having unveiled a plan for what officials say is a “new phase” of the pandemic, with the daily rate of infection lower than it has been since last summer. Many experts however believe there is likely to be another wave in the coming weeks, fuelled by the BA.2 sub-variant.

Jha, an India-born doctor and public health expert, has become one of the most recognisable faces of the pandemic in the US, regularly appearing on television and in newspapers to give his view on the government response.

He frequently chided the Trump administration for undermining public health scientists but has also at times been critical of the Biden administration, warning earlier this year that officials had not done enough to make sure there were sufficient rapid tests before the Omicron wave hit.

Biden said in his statement: “Dr Jha is one of the leading public health experts in America, and a well-known figure to many Americans from his wise and calming public presence.”

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