(WASHINGTON) — A little over a year ago, the U.S. pandemic response was all about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The focus was on getting vials and needles to cities and towns, far and wide, as quickly as possible.
Jeff Zients was deemed the right man for the job of White House coronavirus response coordinator because he had a reputation as a savvy businessman who could cut bureaucratic red tape.
So on Thursday, when the White House announced Zients was stepping down in April and that Dr. Ashish Jha, a leading public health voice, would be the new face of the federal coronavirus response, it emphasized the recent shift in the nation’s pandemic strategy to a phase that’s more about preparedness and communication rather than maximizing operational effort.
Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, initially stepped into the spotlight during the pandemic as a doctor with straightforward advice and predictions about the pandemic. He has at times been a daily presence on television, including on ABC News, and he’s been applauded for giving candid answers about what people should do to stay safe. On Twitter, his takes on the latest pandemic news have garnered him hundreds of thousands of followers.
Brown University announced that Jha will take a short-term leave from the School of Public Health for the temporary White House special assignment.
For the White House, Jha’s popularity is a selling point in the face of a growing communications problem for the Biden administration, under whom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been criticized for being too slow and vague in its guidance on issues like masking recommendations and quarantine timelines. And as the country moves away from masks, administration officials say Jha’s deft communication skills will be an important asset in light of a potential resurgence in cases from the BA.2 variant.
If mask guidance changes, Jha will be at the forefront of explaining why Americans should put them back on.
He’ll also be at the helm while experts at the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration consider whether Americans will need a second round of booster shots, and at what point shots will be authorized for those under five years old, which vaccine companies expect to happen sometime this spring.
During the course of the pandemic, Jha — who is a practicing internist in New England in addition to working in academia — has already racked up some government experience, participating in congressional hearings on the national pandemic response and advising the Biden White House on the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan.
He’s also been tied to the Washington circuit through consulting work — including work with one firm that some experts have criticized for the opaque nature of its client lists, raising questions regarding potential conflicts of interest. Listed as a “senior advisor” at the boutique international consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group, Jha is the latest addition to a long list of senior Biden administration officials who have previously worked at consulting firms with murky client lists.
Many such officials have disclosed much of their consulting work as part of their obligatory financial disclosures — and Jha, as an incoming member of the White House team, is required to disclose his past employment and sources of income, along with his personal finances, within 30 days of assuming his role.
But the specifics of Jha’s work for Albright Stonebridge might not be part of that disclosure unless he discloses the work as part of his ethics agreement — because Jha says he did not get paid for his work at the firm. Officials are only required to include in their personal financial disclosures clients that have paid them more than $5,000 for their services.
Last year, when news of his work with the group circulated on Twitter, Jha wrote that he had advised the group on “pandemic preparedness,” but not for a fee: “In 2020, I volunteered for Madeline Albright’s group (got paid $0) to advise on their work around future pandemic preparedness,” Jha said.
The arrangement could present the appearance of a conflict of interest in Jha’s new role, said Delaney Marsco, ethics legal counsel for the Washington-based nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. But to what extent would depend on Jha’s specific clients, the nature of his consulting work, and what he will be working on while in government, Marsco said.
“Positions that are more honorary and passive are less likely to raise a conflict or even an appearance,” Delaney told ABC News. “If he was directly working on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic for a private company with a significant interest in the government’s current response, there is heightened concern. More disclosure can help us assess the potential for conflict.”
When contacted by ABC News for a comment from Jha, Mahrokh Irani, an associate director in the Brown University School of Public Health’s dean’s office, said that “Dr. Jha was an unpaid advisor for ASG from June, 2020 to February, 2022. Dr. Jha provided to ASG his views on the latest developments in the pandemic and how to be prepared. His work was unrelated to Pfizer, Merck or pharmaceutical company IP issues.”
Of his work for Albright Stonebridge, Jha also said on Twitter in May 2021: “Do dozens of these kinds of things. Happy to put together list of everyone I advise/talk to. I’ll do that.” However, records and social media searches suggest that Jha has not yet publicly released a list of his private consulting clients.
Representatives for Albright Stonebridge Group declined to comment to ABC News.
White House officials say that Jha will undergo extensive ethics training as he joins the administration, as every new hire does.
“While we can’t comment on specific past affiliations, as a White House employee, Dr. Jha will receive rigorous ethics counseling on his obligations under federal ethics law and the Biden-Harris Ethics Pledge, and will follow all applicable ethics and recusal requirements to prevent any conflicts of interest or even the appearance of a conflict, including with respect to his past affiliations,” a White House official said in a statement.
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