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In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the White House Task Force assembled some of the foremost experts on contagious diseases, one of whom is Dr. Deborah Birx.
With decades of experience in researching viruses and an expertise in human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV), Birx has been a near-constant presence at White House coronavirus press briefings.
Though Birx was tapped for the Task Force to help coordinate the nation’s response to the deadly pandemic, she has emerged as a calm, scientifically literate face for the team. At times, she has also conducted interviews to clarify or defend controversial statements made by United States President Donald Trump.
Dr. Deborah Birx’s background
Much of Birx’s early life was spent in Pennsylvania, where she was raised by her parents, Donald and Adele Birx. Her father was a mathematician and electrical engineer and her mother was a nursing instructor.
Even as a teenager, Birx displayed remarkable talent in the field of science. She earned top marks in multiple science fairs as a high schooler and continued her scientific pursuits by earning a B.S. in chemistry at Houghton College in 1976. Four years later, she completed a medical degree at Penn State’s Hershey School of Medicine.
In 1980, her medical training continued at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health. She focused on internal medicine and basic and clinical immunology, which would set her on the path to becoming one of the most well-regarded experts in immunology, particularly in relation to HIV and the related Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
She spent much of her career in the army, retiring in 2008 having achieved the rank of colonel.
Birx is married to Paige Reffe, a lawyer who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration as Deputy Assistant and Director of Advance. Birx and Reffe have two daughters together.
Fighting the AIDS pandemic
Like her colleague on the White House Task Force, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Birx was among the medical experts who searched for a cure to HIV during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. She began her career in 1985 researching a vaccine for the virus while working with the Department of Defense (DoD).
As an HIV/AIDS researcher, she has been the assistant chief of hospital immunology services at Walter Reed, the head of the Department of Retroviral Research and the director of the US Military HIV Research Program.
Birx’s fight against the AIDS pandemic has taken her to Thailand and throughout Africa. It has included leading the RV144 vaccine trial, the first vaccine found to slow down the spread of HIV.
From 2005 to 2014, Birx was the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Global HIV/AIDS.
In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Birx as the US Global Aids Coordinator & US Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy. She was made the head of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a role she maintains to this day.
Throughout her career, Birx has earned widespread recognition. She has earned the US Meritorious Service Medal and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the African Society for Laboratory Medicine. She is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in her field.
Birx joins the fight against COVID-19
On February 27, 2020, the office of Vice President Mike Pence announced that Birx was being added to the Task Force as the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator. She was chosen for having brought “ground-breaking progress to the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
The statement also acknowledged, “Three different Administrations across both political parties have relied on [Birx’s] knowledge and judgment.”
In 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said that Birx “embodies the best of what it means to be a pioneer, to be a practitioner, and a public servant all rolled into one."
Since joining the Task Force, Birx has been called Pence’s “right arm” and “one of the most visible medical officials in the country.”
Beyond coordinating the nation’s response to the pandemic, Birx regularly appears during Trump’s nightly press briefings to provide updates on the nation’s progress.
The Task Force has also been responsible for establishing the guidelines for “Opening Up America Again.” Those guidelines lay out a three-phase plan that prescribes what milestones should be met before states reopen for business and otherwise return to functioning normally.
As COVID-19 testing for every American remains out of reach for the foreseeable future, Birx has recommended using antigen tests as a quicker, albeit less reliable, method for testing more people. This short-term solution could make it easier for people to return to work and school.
An interpreter for Trump
Though Birx is not an official spokesperson for the President, at times she has been put in the position of explaining things Trump has said during press briefings.
Recently, after Trump appeared to suggest injecting disinfectants as a treatment for the coronavirus, Birx was interviewed by Fox News host Jesse Watters for his program, “Watters World.” The doctor said Trump “likes to talk [new information] through out loud and really have that dialogue.” She added that he was “still digesting” information he had received prior to the press briefing.
In that same April 25 interview, Birx criticized the media for being “very slicey and dicey with the way they put together sentences in order to create headlines.”
Despite Birx’s defense of the president, in the days after Trump’s disinfectant comments, emergency hotlines in multiple states experienced an uptick in calls regarding whether ingesting or injecting cleaning products could kill the virus.