With Ziemer gone, oversight of the strategy now falls to Andrea Hall, the senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense, according to an administration official with knowledge of the matter. Hall had already been working side-by-side with Ziemer, both figuratively and literally—they sat in neighboring offices. Both testified before the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Panel for Biodefense in November last year, during which Hall said that, “Making America safer in the biosphere is a ... key priority for this administration.”
Hall joined the National Security Council in June 2016, having served in government positions related to nuclear proliferation and weapons of mass destruction for the previous 13 years. She is well-versed in assessing the risks posed by nuclear, chemical, and—critically, for discussions of pandemic threats—biological weapons. “Andrea Hall is amazing,” says Thomas Inglesby, who directs the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “She’s a great person for that job.”
She also oversees the remaining members of Ziemer’s now-defunct directorate of global health security and biodefense—many of whom carry substantial expertise in pandemic preparedness. Luciana Borio, for example, is an infectious-disease specialist who is affiliated with Johns Hopkins Hospital, and has a wealth of experience leading epidemic responses at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Shake-ups at the NSC have occurred at higher levels, too. During his time at the council, Ziemer reported to H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, and Tom Bossert, the homeland security advisor. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton in March; Bossert resigned in April.
But Vincent Picard, a spokesperson for the NSC, reaffirmed that the Trump administration is still strongly committed to global health security, biodefense, and pandemic preparedness. “Everyone’s paying attention,” he says. “There’s involvement by senior administration officials, and we’re going to do what we need to do to assist the DRC in controlling the [current Ebola] outbreak.”
Ziemer’s departure, and the restructuring of his team, was described as a move to “streamline” the NSC and “combine a handful of offices with similar mission sets” in the name of reduced bureaucracy, according to a statement from the NSC spokesman Robert Palladino.
But the worry is that Hall and her team may now be stretched too thinly. “Now they have to take on not only epidemic and biological threats, but they have to worry about North Korea and Iran and everything else,” says Inglesby. “The more that you make [epidemic preparedness] a part of other activities, the less time anyone has to focus on any of it.”
Ron Klain, the former Ebola czar, agrees. “Andrea Hall has a good reputation, but I think this is a mistake that puts us all more at risk,” he says. “Combining epidemic prevention and control with WMD issues means that the epidemic work will always take a back seat. It means that no senior level person will be specifically focused on the work that needs to be done to protect us from this serious threat. And it means that the team will tilt their focus more toward intentional attacks using infectious diseases, and less on the more frequent (and just as serious) risk of naturally spread diseases.”