Biden's potential COVID-19 'czar' Zients would oversee daunting task of pandemic response

WILMINGTON, Del., Dec 3 (Reuters) - When technical problems marred the ballyhooed launch of the Affordable Care Act’s website, President Barack Obama turned to Jeff Zients, an economic adviser touted for his managerial skills, to repair Obama’s signature policy rollout.

Seven years later, Obama’s vice president, President-elect Joe Biden, is considering tapping Zients to tackle a far more daunting problem as the incoming administration’s coronavirus “czar,” according to a Biden ally briefed on his thinking.

The prominent position would be similar to the role that Ron Klain, Biden’s soon-to-be chief of staff, played for the Obama administration during the Ebola crisis in 2014. While that outbreak ultimately killed only two people in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has already cost more than 270,000 U.S. lives and shows little sign of slowing amid record hospitalizations.

Zients appears to be the front-runner for the job, which could be announced as soon as next week, the Biden ally said. Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. surgeon general who has been one of Biden’s top coronavirus advisers, is also thought to be in the running.

Biden’s transition team declined to comment or make Zients available for an interview.

Biden has made fighting the intensifying pandemic his top priority, after a campaign in which he regularly slammed President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis. Trump’s administration has a coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence and set up Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership, to speed vaccine development.

In addition to confronting the disease’s spread after Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, the coronavirus czar will oversee a mammoth and unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.

The U.S. rollout of the first vaccines may begin this month, but it could be months before they are widely available.

Zients, a wealthy businessman who has moved between the public sector and corporate America, has played a central role in the transition since Biden beat Trump in the Nov. 3 election. In recent weeks, Zients has also served as a pandemic liaison of sorts with governors and state officials, frequently joining calls to share data and discuss concerns, according to two sources familiar with the calls.

He and other Biden officials have emphasized stepping up deliveries of personal protective equipment and increasing testing, while expressing sympathy for the financial burden the massive vaccine rollout will impose on already strained state budgets, the sources said.

“Zients has been impressive,” said one state Democratic official who has participated in the calls. “If the people currently involved in the transition are involved come January, I think we are in good hands.”

Zients’ corporate background, however, has concerned some liberal groups that question whether he would be too business-friendly.

“The COVID czar will have to make decisions on just how deferential to business to be,” said Jeff Hauser, head of the Revolving Door Project, a watchdog group that scrutinizes executive branch appointees for their corporate ties.


As part of his preparation for the potential role, Zients has been on conference calls with staff from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one of the sources said.

He is a member of the transition’s agency review teams examining the work under way at the Defense, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security departments, all of which will be involved in the vaccine rollout.

While Zients is not a longtime member of Biden’s inner circle, his selection as the coronavirus czar would continue Biden’s pattern of turning to former Obama hands to staff many of his senior roles.

Zients, a healthcare consulting executive earlier in his career, served in the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration before being appointed to lead the National Economic Council, which advises the president on economic policy.

“Everybody kind of sees him as just a good manager,” a Biden adviser said.

After Obama left office, Zients became chief executive of the Cranemere Group, a multibillion-dollar firm that acquires businesses, and served on Facebook Inc’s board until this year. He is now on leave from Cranemere.

Zients, one of several co-chairs of the transition announced in the autumn, also served as one of the Biden campaign’s major fundraisers.

In November 2019, when the campaign was spending more than it was taking in and trailing rivals such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Zients and his wife, Mary, hosted a fundraiser at their Washington home. In addition to collecting much-needed money, the event attracted more than 50 former Obama administration officials and helped improve the mood of the campaign, according to a person involved in the gathering.

Antony Blinken and Alejandro Mayorkas, now Biden’s nominees for secretary of state and homeland security chief, respectively, were among the guests at the party.

Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington, Delaware; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney