White House Taps Vaccine Leader in Pandemic Preparedness Push

The U.S. government’s director for Covid-19 vaccine development has been tapped by the White House to take on a role focused on preparing for future pandemics.

Matthew Hepburn, the director of Covid vaccine development for the Countermeasures Acceleration Group, formerly known as Operation Warp Speed, is preparing to take on the new position Oct. 1, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Hepburn, 50, will focus on the development of vaccines, therapies and tests to tackle pandemic threats, reporting directly to Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander, said the people, who asked not to be named as details of the appointment are not yet public. 

The countermeasures group where Hepburn is a currently employed is a joint effort of the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. The Defense Department must still sign off on Hepburn’s move, according to the people, given the retired colonel remains a civilian employee. The White House and Defense Department didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

White House Taps Vaccine Leader in Pandemic Preparedness Push

Hepburn, an infectious disease doctor who spent more than two decades in the U.S. Army, will also help coordinate and improve U.S. disease forecasting and genomic sequencing capabilities, according to the people. The U.S. has been criticized for falling behind other developed countries in tracking the rise of new genetic coronavirus mutations. 

Past Work

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy was established by Congress in 1976 to work across the public and private sectors to achieve technological advancements. The office’s new pandemic readiness unit has not yet been announced, and its mission is still evolving. 

According to people familiar with the plans, the office will provide oversight over the government’s pandemic readiness projects and their funding, and advise on regulatory reform. 

Hepburn has long focused on biodefense and pandemic preparedness through the prism of immunizations and treatments. Most recently, he provided oversight for the U.S. government’s investment in six different Covid-19 vaccine platforms, including those developed by Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc., and Johnson & Johnson. 

Before joining Warp Speed, Hepburn served as a program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, focusing on response to infectious disease outbreaks that affect military personnel. Prior to that he was director of medical preparedness for the White House National Security Council under the Obama administration, where he used experience from the H1N1 pandemic to advance public-health surveillance. 

Hepburn’s return to the White House provides a glimpse of the Biden administration’s emerging pandemic preparedness strategy. Lander, a renowned geneticist and molecular biologist, is building a nimble team that will work closely with health department agencies, according to one of the people. 

Rising Investment

In a March 2020 talk, Hepburn predicted a future where “we can actually take pandemics off the table.” He remains optimistic, saying in August that the joint effort set a precedent for medical tools to be developed in eleven months. 

“It’s ultimately a question of resources, organization, willpower and prioritization,” he said at a meeting held by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “If it’s of a high enough priority, you can have a medical countermeasure in a very short period of time.”

The Biden administration has been increasing investment in pandemic preparedness. In June, HHS announced that the U.S. would invest $3.2 billion in developing antiviral medicines to combat Covid-19 and other viruses with pandemic potential. As a part of the project, it will establish Antiviral Drug Discovery Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern.

Meanwhile, Biden’s Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci has underscored that the administration’s pandemic preparedness strategy goes beyond antivirals. The U.S. is in discussions about investing in a comprehensive pandemic preparedness program, that would include the development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for viral threats, he said last month. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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