The Biden administration is making a latest division inside the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate the nation’s response to pandemic threats and other health emergencies, a recognition that the department is structurally unwell equipped to handle disasters just like the coronavirus pandemic.
The change, announced internally on Wednesday, will elevate an existing office — that of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, referred to as ASPR — to its own operating division, the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response.
The move effectively creates a latest federal agency — on par with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration — that can be chargeable for crucial health logistics, including oversight of the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency medical reserve, and contracting for and distributing vaccines in an emergency.
The aim is to extend the office’s authority and consolidate its powers in order that it could possibly operate as a counterpart to the C.D.C., the F.D.A. and the National Institutes of Health, which all manage various facets of an emergency response. But it surely may create tensions between those agencies — which have their very own campuses outside of Washington — and the brand new division, which is able to operate out of H.H.S. headquarters within the capital.
“This modification allows ASPR to mobilize a coordinated national response more quickly and stably during future disasters and emergencies while equipping us with greater hiring and contracting capabilities,” Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, wrote to employees on Wednesday in an email announcing the change, which was first reported by The Washington Post.
On the surface, elevating an office to a division might appear to be Washington bureaucratic reshuffling. But people accustomed to the change say the brand new division will construct on work the preparedness and response office already does, incorporating capabilities it has built up in the course of the pandemic.
In 2018, ASPR was put in command of the national stockpile; it had previously been run by the C.D.C., which bitterly opposed the move. The stockpile was short on basic supplies, including ventilators, masks and other protective gear, on the outset of the pandemic, and stands today as a searing example of the failures of that early response.
Ms. O’Connell also already oversees the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is chargeable for developing modern vaccines and therapeutics. That agency was thrust into the highlight in 2020, when President Donald J. Trump fired its director.
But firstly of the pandemic, the assistant secretary running ASPR lacked the potential to contract with corporations to buy vaccines, and was forced to depend on the Department of Defense to handle purchasing and distribution of the shots. Elevating the office into an operating division will enable it to take over a few of those responsibilities, people accustomed to the move say. Ms. O’Connell said latest hiring and contracting authority can be phased in “over a time period.”
In her memo, Ms. O’Connell said her office’s newer “missions,” similar to overseeing the national stockpile, were “pushing it against the bounds of a typical staff division.”
The choice appeared to catch some top federal health officials by surprise, including on the White House and the C.D.C., senior officials said.
Lawrence Gostin, a former C.D.C. adviser who directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said the announcement Wednesday was “greater than a little bit vague, which makes it much more frustrating.”
“It’s all the time tempting when an agency performs badly to sideline it or to designate its key functions to a different agency, or to even defund it, which I feel will occur as a consequence of this, when the fitting answer is to repair it,” he said. “Quite than raising the agency back to its days of pre-eminence, we’ve curbed it. I feel the Biden administration and future administrations will rue the day that they clipped C.D.C.’s wings.”
A spokeswoman for the C.D.C. said the agency “is supportive of Assistant Secretary O’Connell’s vision for ASPR — a critical partner for us in addressing public health threats.”
“We are going to proceed to work closely together to advance and protect the health of the American people,” said the spokeswoman, Kristen Nordlund.
Dr. Luciana Borio, a former acting chief scientist on the F.D.A. and National Security Council official, said that the office was all the time meant to be a more strategic arm of the federal health bureaucracy than an operational one.
“We’ve to watch out that the brand new entity doesn’t grow to be saddled with operational responsibilities,” she said. “We want to leverage the entire of presidency for that.”
“We’ve seen over and once again that it isn’t a couple of single entity responding” in a pandemic, she said.
If the change at H.H.S. shifts authority or responsibility, she added, “I’m concerned it would be unclear who’s in charge and it would create more confusion. The C.D.C. is crucial to the response. Any act that further erodes C.D.C.’s role can be detrimental.”