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Biden names Ashish Jha as White House COVID-19 coordinator

Dr. Ashish Jha.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, will join President Joe Biden’s administration as the COVID-19 coordinator, the White House announced Thursday, replacing the current coordinator, Jeff Zients, and his deputy, Natalie Quillian.

In a series of statements posted on Twitter, Jha praised Zients for his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are in so much of a better place with vaccines, diagnostics, increasingly, therapeutics, and much more,” Jha tweeted. “Much of this because of the superb leadership of Jeff Zients who has used the levers of the US government to make available these miracles of science to the American people.”

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Jha warned that while the COVID-19 pandemic may have waned, there is much more work to be done.

“We are very likely to see more surges of infections,” he wrote. “We may see more variants. We can’t predict everything with certainty. But we have to prepare to protect the American people [from] whatever Mother Nature throws at us.”

Biden, in a statement, praised Zients and his team for “stunning” and “consequential” progress against the coronavirus pandemic.

“When Jeff took this job, less than 1 percent of Americans were fully vaccinated; fewer than half our schools were open; and unlike much of the developed world, America lacked any at-home COVID tests,” Biden said. “Today, almost 80 percent of adults are fully vaccinated; over 100 million are boosted; virtually every school is open; and hundreds of millions of at-home tests are distributed every month.”

Biden noted that the US is leading the global effort to fight COVID, “delivering more free vaccines to other countries than every other nation.”

Biden's statement announcing Jha's appointment cited his familiarity to Americans as a fixture on cable news.

“As we enter a new moment in the pandemic — executing on my National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan and managing the ongoing risks from COVID — Dr. Jha is the perfect person for the job,” he said.

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Jha was announced as the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health on Feb. 26, 2020, just days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Previously, he was the faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

“By the time of the announcement, it had dawned on me that our response to this novel virus would be worse than I had anticipated,” Jha told The Globe in September 2020, on his first day at Brown.

Jha’s appointment to Biden’s team is short-term, so he will take a leave of absence but not depart Brown permanently, said Brian Clark, a university spokesman.

“We expect to announce an interim dean in the coming days to lead the School of Public Health’s strong leadership team to implement the priorities of the School during Jha’s assignment to the White House,” Clark told the Globe in an email on Thursday.

University president Christina H. Paxson said Jha’s appointment by the president offers a “prominent illustration of the ways in which the University can make a positive impact on domestic and global issues of significant consequence.”

“Ashish will bring to President Biden and our nation what he has brought — and will bring back — to Brown: an unrivaled commitment to improving public health equitably, effectively, creatively, with heart and a commitment to science,” Paxson said Thursday morning in a statement. “The work he has begun at the School of Public Health will continue, with the strong team he has recruited and the full support of the University. And it will advance even further with the benefit of this experience in national and global leadership.”

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Dr. Megan Ranney, academic dean of the School of Public Health, is another national leader for analysis on the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s unclear if Ranney will take over as interim dean, but she said Thursday that the school has a “strong, dedicated team to fuel” the leadership and progress on key public health issues and challenges.

“We proudly endorse President Biden’s decision and welcome Ashish’s national and global leadership,” she said.

In addition to his role as dean and a public health scholar, Jha is a practicing physician with expertise in infectious diseases. He has been globally recognized as an expert on the pandemic in terms of preparedness and response, as well as health policy research and practice.

Over the last year, Jha has helped guide the university through the pandemic and Rhode Island’s vaccine rollout. Brown was one of the first universities in the state to require all students and employees to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus for the fall 2021 semester, and was committed to keeping students on campus and learning in the classroom.

“Throughout this pandemic, we have worked at Brown to improve public understanding and information, and inform policy at every level of government here and around the globe,” Jha said in a statement.

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As dean, he has been the face of the school of public health, which saw an unprecedented number of new student applications for the 2021-22 academic year. Under his leadership, the school launched a new, fully online master of public health degree program and academic initiatives focused on long COVID, pandemic preparedness and health misinformation.

The school also created a Health Equity Scholars program to expand diversity among public health leaders and increase the number of tenure-track faculty from historically underrepresented groups.

“Ashish Jha has built on a foundation of early progress from the School of Public Health’s first decade, growing its focus on tackling the most important issues in health policy and practice, devising new ways to expand the accessibility of Brown’s public health degrees and expanding the school’s reputation exponentially,” Provost Richard M. Locke said in a statement.

Since Biden was sworn in, Jha has participated in a number of Congressional hearings on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, among others. He also advised the White House on the national COVID-19 preparedness plan.

“I am honored to accept President Biden’s invitation to serve and continue that work,” said Jha of his appointment. “I do so confident that the work of the Brown School of Public Health will advance around critical issues including pandemic preparedness and key initiatives we have launched and are growing, to improve understanding and policy in key public health issues, and train the next generation of public health leaders.”

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Jha was born in Pursaulia, Bihar, India, in 1970. He moved to Canada in 1979 and then to the US in 1983. He was elected as a member of the National Academy of Medicine in 2013.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.