- Rahul Gupta, a former West Virginia health official, is the president’s choice for director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, while writer, surgeon, and public health expert Atul Gawande has been chosen to lead global health development at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
President Biden has nominated two Indian American physicians in key roles at top health agencies. Rahul Gupta, a former West Virginia health official, is the president’s choice for director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, while writer, surgeon, and public health expert Atul Gawande is chosen to lead global health development at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Gupta, a primary-care doctor who previously served as West Virginia’s health commissioner and led Biden’s transition efforts for the drug policy office, would be the first physician to serve as ‘drug czar’ if confirmed by the Senate. He replaces Regina LaBelle, who has served as the office’s acting director since January.
President Biden played a key role in creating the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1982. It coordinates national policy around fighting substance-use disorders, including the response to an opioid crisis that has worsened during the pandemic. In 2009, President Barack Obama demoted the office from his Cabinet. The Post reported that since then advocates have demanded Biden “to reverse the decision, pointing to his own years of advocacy to elevate the role.”
In a statement, the White House said “that Gupta’s nomination “to be the first physician ever to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is another historic step in the Administration’s efforts to turn the tide of our nation’s addiction and overdose epidemic. Gupta brings firsthand experience as a medical doctor and public health official using evidence-based strategies to address the overdose epidemic in West Virginia.”
Gupta, an ally of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), has been in the lead to take the role of the drug czar. However, he faced resistance from some anti-addiction advocates, “who argued he did too little to ensure safe-needle exchange during a 2017 HIV outbreak in West Virginia,” according to The Washington Post.
Manchin took to Twitter to hail Gupta’s nomination. “Dr. Rahul Gupta’s nomination to serve as the Director of the @ONDCP means someone with firsthand knowledge of the opioid crisis, especially in #WV, will be coordinating the national fight against the drug epidemic that continues to ravage our nation.”
A practicing primary care physician of 25 years, Gupta previously served under two governors as the Health Commissioner of West Virginia. As the state’s chief health officer, he led the opioid crisis response efforts and launched several pioneering public health initiatives, including the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Birthscore program to identify high-risk infants. Gupta also led the development of the state’s Zika action plan and its preparedness efforts during the Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak.
Currently the chief medical and health officer at March of Dimes, Gupta also serves as clinical professor in the Department of Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine as well as an adjunct professor in the Department of Health Policy, Management and Leadership in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University and visiting faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Additionally, he serves as an advisor to several organizations and task forces on local, national, and international public health policy.
Before moving to West Virginia, Gupta served as an academic faculty in Tennessee and Alabama before going to West Virginia originally in 2009 to lead the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. He is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Health Policy, Management and Leadership in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University and holds several other academic appointments as well.
The son of an Indian diplomat, Rahul was born in India and grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. At age 21, he completed medical school at the University of Delhi. He earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of Alabama-Birmingham and a global master’s of business administration degree from the London School of Business and Finance. He is married to Dr. Seema Gupta, a physician in the Veterans Administration for over a decade. They are the proud parents of identical twin sons, Arka and Drew.
Gawande is the Cyndy and John Fish Distinguished Professor of Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Samuel O. Thier Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, and professor of Health Policy and Management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He is also founder and chair of Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and of Lifebox, a nonprofit organization making surgery safer globally.
During the pandemic, Gawande co-founded CIC Health, which operates COVID-19 testing and vaccination nationally, and served on Biden transition’s advisory board on COVID-19. He served as a senior adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services during the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
Gawande’s role at USAID will focus on efforts to prevent child and maternal deaths, control the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and combat infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, a White House official told Reuters.
“I’m honored to be nominated to lead global health development at @USAID, including for COVID,” Gawande tweeted. “With more COVID deaths worldwide in the first half of 2021 than in all of 2020, I’m grateful for the chance to help end this crisis and to re-strengthen public health systems worldwide.”
From 2018 to 2020, Gawande was CEO of Haven, the Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase healthcare venture. He previously served as a senior advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton Administration. He has also been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship.