The White House is mulling replacing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, according to sources cited by POLITICO.
Among suggested likely candidates to the position of HHS secretary are coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, Medicare chief Seema Verma and deputy HHS Secretary Eric Hargan.
Amidst soaring tensions generated by the coronavirus outbreak and criticism over the official response to it, senior aides have reportedly been blindsided and frustrated with Azar’s role in the abrupt dismissal of Dr. Rick Bright, the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine.
At a recent task force meeting, says the outlet, Azar, 52, insisted the appointment of Bright to the National Institutes of Health was a promotion.
However, the vaccine expert and his team of lawyers released a statement on 24 April revealing that he would soon file a whistleblower complaint, outlining the “retaliatory treatment to which [Bright] was subjected by HHS political leadership after raising appropriate science-based concerns about White House pressure on treatment and vaccines related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to Bright’s lawyers.
Officials are also cited as holding Azar responsible for a spate of media reports that suggested the health chief had urged Donald Trump to act sooner on the coronavirus outbreak in January, but his warnings had been brushed off as “alarmist.
Azar himself had dismissed the reports, insisting the President “never once rejected, turned down or dismissed a recommendation”.
Azar’s style adopted in running the organisation was also supposedly called into question late in 2019, when his feud with Medicare chief Seema Verma became public knowledge, with a POLITICO report on 26 November first shedding light on their rift, allegedly rooted in policy differences over the replacement proposal for Obamacare, drug pricing, and other initiatives, that was acquiring increasingly personal overtones.
The speculations gathered force after Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence, rather than Azar, as the White House's main point of contact for the coronavirus task force in late February.
In a statement released on Saturday, the White House dismissed speculation that officials were considering replacing Azar.
“The Department of Health and Human Services, under the leadership of Secretary Azar, continues to lead on a number of the President’s priorities. Any speculation about personnel is irresponsible and a distraction from our whole-of-government response to COVID-19,” said deputy press Secretary Judd Deere.
HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley resonded to the reports by saying:
“Secretary Azar is busy responding to a global, public health crisis and doesn't have time for palace intrigue."