Perna Retiring From Covid Task Force as U.S. Response Shifts

U.S. Army General Gustave Perna, a top official in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in both the Trump and Biden administrations, is set to retire July 2.

Robert Johnson, an official at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, will serve as interim chief operating officer for the pandemic effort, according to Jeffrey Zients, President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 coordinator.

Perna has “been helping lead our nation through a war he probably did not envision when he joined the army in 1981,” Zients said in an interview. “He’s been a key driver of the success that we’ve had.”

Perna Retiring From Covid Task Force as U.S. Response Shifts

The four-star general’s departure marks yet another shift in the leadership and vision of the U.S. pandemic response. In July 2020, Perna became the co-leader of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s multi-billion-dollar coronavirus vaccine and treatment effort. Working alongside Moncef Slaoui, the program’s former chief scientific adviser, Perna was responsible for logistical issues, such as manufacturing and distribution of rapidly developed pharmaceutical products.

In the wake of Biden’s election, the White House dropped the Warp Speed name. The program now holds a new designation, the Countermeasures Acceleration Group. Biden asked that Perna stay on as chief operations officer, according to Zients. Slaoui, meanwhile, was let go.

Assuming responsibility for the vaccine rollout posed a challenge for the new administration, Zients said.

“The way we were prepared for that was to have General Perna in his seat,” he said.

Perna’s departure signals a transition away from the Defense Department’s outsized role in coordinating the rollout. The Countermeasures Acceleration Group will soon become part of the Department of Health and Human Services, according to Zients.

Shifting Response

Since the origin of Warp Speed, U.S. pandemic response leaders have adapted to new missions. Last summer, the effort was focused on developing vaccines and therapeutics. That shifted to securing manufacturing and distribution capabilities, and then getting millions of doses quickly into arms around the nation.

Roughly half the U.S. population has now received at least one dose, and states are flush with supply as fewer people rush to clinics. The mass-vaccination phase of the rollout is nearly complete, Zients said, and the U.S. will focus on immunizing children and developing more antiviral medicines to treat those who contract Covid-19.

HHS took a step in that direction earlier this month, announcing it would invest $3.2 billion in developing antiviral medicines to combat Covid and other viruses with pandemic potential.

Johnson, Perna’s temporary replacement, is currently director of Influenza and Emerging Infectious Disease within Barda. Among his tasks will be getting doses of the vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE to teenagers through doctor’s offices and clinics.

David Kessler, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration who replaced Slaoui, will remain as as chief scientific officer of the countermeasures group.

Central Role

Perna, 61, had planned for retirement prior to the pandemic. He earlier served as commanding general of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, overseeing the fighting force’s global supply chain.

His leadership and expertise have been critical to the Covid-19 response, said of Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin II, who served with Perna in Iraq dealing with logistics. “Thanks to his unrelenting efforts and leadership in the fight against Covid, we are one step closer to returning to a normal way of life,” he said in a statement.

The general’s participation was key to the success of Warp Speed, said Paul Mango, a senior HHS official under the Trump administration.

“I wish the current administration had embraced his role as vigorously as we had,” he said

Zients said that Perna remained central to the vaccine rollout even after the transition to the new administration.

“When I think about the people we rely on most, General Perna is one of a very small handful,” he said. “A day doesn’t go by when I’m not getting his counsel and advice.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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