Joe Biden has promised to put science back at the heart of the US government’s response to the pandemic. Yet the man he has chosen as his White House coronavirus tsar is not a scientist, but rather a management consultant and investor known to former Obama staffers as “Mr Fix It” for his ability to turn round failing government projects.
When Mr Biden takes over as president, Jeff Zients will be the co-ordinator of the president’s Covid-19 task force, a position that will give him oversight of everything being done across the federal government to tackle the virus, from deciding travel restrictions to managing the vaccine supply chain.
Unlike most of the others advising the new president on the virus, Mr Zients has no scientific or medical background. Still, his friends say the former consultant, entrepreneur and even deli owner is the perfect choice to fix the mess left behind by the Trump administration.
“What has been stunningly lacking over the past year is an organised response,” said Tom Frieden, the former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. “You need someone to be the conductor of the orchestra. They don’t need to know how to play every instrument, you just need to know what to do to get the best out of them.”
Mr Zients comes into the job at a critical point in the pandemic. The US has been hit harder by the disease than most other countries, with case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths rising throughout the autumn and early winter. A further 2,141 fatalities has taken the death toll to 392,428, according to the Covid Tracking Project, while an alternate methodology used by Johns Hopkins University puts the tally at more than 400,000.
The role of Mr Zients will be to revamp the entire pandemic response, a task that is likely to test his management skills as he tries to co-ordinate different federal, state and local organisations.
One of his earliest jobs was working for Bain Consulting, where he later said he “fell in love with [the company’s] culture, teamwork . . . and analytical rigour”. It was there he met his wife Mary Menell, who comes from a South African family so well-connected that Nelson Mandela attended their wedding.
Mr Zients then helped to run Advisory Board, a healthcare research company, and its spin-off the Corporate Executive Board. He earned tens of millions of dollars when he helped to take both companies public. In 2002 Fortune Magazine estimated his wealth at $149m, then making him the 25th richest American under 40, one place above Julia Roberts and two behind Elon Musk.
In 2009 Barack Obama hired Mr Zients as the government’s first “chief performance officer”, before asking him to turn round the error-plagued launch of HealthCare.gov, the insurance exchange website used to distribute the policies offered under the Affordable Care Act.
Denis McDonough, who was Mr Obama’s chief of staff at the time, asked Mr Zients to take on that job during a walk on the White House south lawn. “He didn’t ask what the terms were, and wasn’t worried about the fact that it was an extraordinarily difficult job. He just wanted to get started,” Mr McDonough recalled.
Mr Zients’ answer was to bring in the private sector: he hired experts from Google and made Optum, a division of United Healthcare, the project’s main contractor. The strategy worked, and the technical glitches were fixed in time for people to begin signing up to the new state-backed health insurance policies in the following year.
Colleagues say Mr Zients was also a calm manager and excellent talent spotter.
Since leaving government Mr Zients has had an eclectic career, joining Facebook as a board member but also helping to start a popular Washington bagel shop Call Your Mother.
Andrew Dana, his partner in that venture, says Mr Zients helped him navigate the chaos of setting up a business and focus on just a few key questions, such as where the deli should be located. He said it was more than just an investment for the food-loving Mr Zients, who asked to sit in on smoked salmon tastings.
Mr Zients’ admiration for the private sector is viewed with suspicion by some on the left, with progressives asking whether he will be willing to give a prominent enough role to the government or risk upsetting the business community.
Max Moran, a research assistant at the Revolving Door Project, which monitors links between business and government, said: “I worry that his priority is not necessarily going to be doing what is going to help the most people immediately, but doing things that do not disrupt business as usual, whether that’s not upsetting the stock market or not creating regulatory uncertainty, or not expanding the state.”
Others say they are worried about the most important coronavirus job in the White House being done by a non-scientist, especially if he undermines or interferes with the work being done by the CDC, which was frequently sidelined by the Trump administration.
Lawrence Gostin, a public health professor at Georgetown University, said: “Core functions, which were really served by the White House under the Trump administration, need to go back virtually exclusively to the CDC, without White House interference.”
Mr Gostin said Mr Zients had the executive experience needed to co-ordinate the rollout, but said he should avoid emulating the approach taken by outgoing vice-president Mike Pence, who chaired the White House coronavirus task force.
“If he starts to act more like Pence, reviewing and back-stabbing and overseeing the CDC’s response, it will be a disaster,” he said.
Mr Zients’ first task will be to revamp the vaccine distribution plan, which has stumbled in its early days. But his early drafts reportedly failed to impress Mr Biden, who is said to have criticised Mr Zients’ team for failing to come up with detailed enough proposals.
Mr Biden’s officials deny reports of tensions between the two, and the incoming administration has since released its blueprint for how to ramp up vaccinations.
Announcing that plan, Mr Zients said last week it was “a fundamentally different approach” from that taken by the Trump administration. Critics point out, however, that many of the measures had already been taken by the outgoing government, such as releasing almost all available doses and calling for over-65s to be vaccinated straight away.
Others said the plan demonstrated Mr Zients’ reluctance to recommend radical policy solutions, such as asking the US National Guard to administer vaccinations.
But allies say the proposals show Mr Zients has identified the roadblocks in the existing rollout, which bodes well for his ability to overhaul the rest of the response. Mr McDonough said: “Jeff’s real skill is he can break down really complex problems into small and executable chunks.”
Mr Dana said: “I will sleep better knowing Jeff is in charge of tackling coronavirus.”
Additional reporting by Peter Wells in New York