HHS chief Alex Azar put 'ex-dog breeder' with little healthcare experience in charge of Covid-19 task force: Report

Brian Harrison, Azar's aide, has no formal training in public health or medicine


                            HHS chief Alex Azar put 'ex-dog breeder' with little healthcare experience in charge of Covid-19 task force: Report
Brian Harrison and Alex Azar (hhs.gov; Wikimedia Commons)

The Donald Trump administration has repeatedly drawn flak over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has affected over 840,000 people. While the president has reiterated his claim that his government has done a wonderful job in dealing with the pandemic and has hit out at all critical voices, a new report has emerged which is bound to see more criticism coming in for Trump & Co.

On January 21, when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the US, Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar assured the people of America on Fox News that his government was prepared to handle the disease while it was still ravaging China, the country of its origin. Azar said arrangements were in place to test people and downplayed the seriousness of the threat. Two agencies that Azar oversaw — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — also failed to rise to the occasion and crucial time was lost for conducting tests.

Azar also roped in a close aide soon after his message of assurance on TV to oversee the agency’s day-to-day response to the pandemic and it has been revealed by a report in Reuters that the aide, Brian Harrison, has minimal experience in public health. Harrison, in fact, ran a dog-breeding business for six years and even officials in the White House ridiculed him as “the dog breeder”, the report said, citing five sources. 

Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, attends the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing April 3, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

“Azar’s optimistic public pronouncement and choice of an inexperienced manager are emblematic of his agency’s oft-troubled response to the crisis,” the report said.

The appointment of Harrison raised eyebrows since he has no formal training in issues like public health, management or medicine and only limited on-field experience. He has a degree in Economics from Texas A&M University. In 2006, he joined the HHS as a “Confidential Assistant” for a year when Azar was the deputy secretary of health. Harrison had served in various posts in the George W Bush presidency (2001-08) and also worked in the office of former vice president Dick Cheney, Social Security Administration and the Department of Defense. 

Before returning to the government ranks under the Trump administration in January 2018, Harrison led a family business called “Dallas Labradoodles” that breeds Australian Labradoodles, a hybrid of Labrador, Poodle and Cocker Spaniel dog breeds. His official biography in the HHS says that he “ran a small business in Texas” though it doesn’t reveal its name or nature. Harrison sold the company in April 2018, his financial disclosure form said. Reuters learned from an email from HHS that the sales price was $225,000.
In June 2019, Harrison was promoted as the chief of staff in the HHS replacing a more experienced Peter Urbanowicz, who departed. 

Harrison’s responsibility became heavier this January as he became a key member of the HHS’ virus response mechanism. Everybody’s report had to go through him, an HHS official said. The man is said to have managed the early response to the outbreak before the task force was put under the supervision of Vice President Mike Pence in late February, another decision that came under criticism

Harrison excluded FDA chief from task force

Under Harrison, the HHS’ role in dealing with the crisis included gathering resources from key public health agencies but he reportedly kept out FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn from the task force, suggesting that there was no need. HHS denied that it was Harrison’s call to exclude Hahn who later was brought into the task force. Two of Hahn’s high-profile counterparts — CDC chief Robert Redfield and Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — were there in the task force from the beginning. 

Harrison said in a statement that he was proud of his work history. “Americans would be well served by having more government officials who have started and worked in small family businesses and fewer trying to use that experience to attack them and distort the record,” he wrote.

Azar, on the other hand, told the news agency that Harrison has been an asset who has shown “remarkable leadership and managerial talents” from the very beginning.