Exclusive: 5 potential picks to succeed Deborah Birx at PEPFAR

Deborah Birx delivers remarks at the PEPFAR Faith Communities and HIV Technical Summit in 2018. Photo by: U.S. Department of State

President Joe Biden has yet to announce a nominee for U.S. global AIDS coordinator, the role that was previously held by Deborah Birx and includes leadership of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

It is one of the highest-profile positions within U.S. global health and development agencies — particularly given PEPFAR’s role in the global response to COVID-19, as well as Birx’s highly visible departure.

Multiple sources with knowledge of internal discussions or external lobbying efforts have told Devex that five names have risen to the surface as potential leaders of the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy: Shannon Hader, Charles Holmes, Chris Beyrer, Vanessa Kerry, and Paul Farmer. Among the group, three are well-known experts within the global HIV community, two are veterans of former President Barack Obama’s administration, and two are prominent global health leaders.

Hader is currently deputy executive director at UNAIDS. Hader served under Obama as director of the global HIV and tuberculosis division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and as former vice president at Futures Group, now known as Palladium.

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Holmes is director at Georgetown University’s Center for Innovation in Global Health and served as chief medical officer and deputy U.S. global AIDS coordinator for PEPFAR during the Obama administration. Before that, Holmes was CEO at the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia.

Beyrer is currently the Desmond M. Tutu professor of public health and human rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and was formerly president of the International AIDS Society.

When reached for comment, Beyrer told Devex he would be willing to serve if given the opportunity, noting that he has been “in conversations with some people in the administration about serving in a global health role generally.”

“The opportunity to be a part of America’s return to international diplomacy and American soft power — which I think PEPFAR is probably the iconic program for — is compelling to me,” he said.

In addition to the three HIV experts, sources told Devex that the search for Birx’s successor has also surfaced two well-known — and politically well-connected — names.

Multiple sources told Devex that Vanessa Kerry, founder and CEO at Seed Global Health and daughter of former Secretary of State John Kerry, has been mentioned for the role. Seed Global Health, under her leadership, has established public-private partnerships with U.S. agencies and initiatives, including PEPFAR.

One source told Devex that Farmer, co-founder and chief strategist at Partners In Health and a perennial candidate for high-level health and development positions, has also received attention.

Multiple sources also cautioned that these names are not necessarily the only ones under consideration by an administration that is still primarily focused on domestic COVID-19 response. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive nomination process.

Devex reached out to all five of those believed to be under consideration. Other than Beyrer, none commented directly on their candidacy or plans.

On Jan. 13, Biden nominated Samantha Power to be administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development — among the earliest nominations for that role in history — and announced he would elevate the position to a seat on the National Security Council. U.S. development advocates have welcomed those moves as a signal that the administration envisions a key role for USAID in its foreign policy and in response to COVID-19.

The fact that Biden has not yet named a nominee to lead PEPFAR at a moment when the initiative is facing treatment gaps due to COVID-19, while also being asked to play a key part in the global pandemic response, has raised some questions about PEPFAR’s standing.

“I think a lot of the advocacy community was really pushing for leadership positions across the board. And yet to have that be missing as a leadership position … to me, that’s a strange look,” said one U.S. global health expert, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“I would think, given Birx’s reputation and the sort of blaze of glory in which she exited, that they would want to actually stabilize that pretty quickly and sort of reestablish its reputation outside of her,” the expert said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.