From Bihar village to White House: America’s COVID Czar Dr. Ashish Jha speaks of his journey

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Dr. Ashish Jha, left with President Joe Biden at the Oval office in the White House. PHOTO: Official White House photo by Adam Schultz provided to News India Times.

In an exclusive interview with News India Times on September 16, 2022, at his White House office, Coronavirus Response Coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha, discussed his early life in India and Canada, and his journey to the White House where he is the Biden administration’s point-man for COVID strategy and pandemic preparedness

Please explain the Biden administration’s COVID mitigation efforts vs. the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic? What are the lessons learned?

 Biden administration’s response has been very different than that of the prior administration. There has been a very strong commitment to following scientific principles and public health guidance in this administration. The Trump administration was inconsistent in how it used public health guidance. I have taught students for 20 years and the basic belief in public health is when you have a pandemic, you develop what we think about as countermeasures – vaccines, treatments, and tests. Until those countermeasures are available – you use non-pharmaceutical interventions; masking, distancing, and avoiding crowds. Once countermeasures become more available, then you can ease up on those non-pharmaceutical interventions. That has been very much our strategy. So even now, with fall and winter, our major strategy is making sure people get vaccinated. Making sure that people are getting treatments, that we have tests available, and then using masking and distancing as necessary to keep infection numbers down. This is very much a classic public health approach to handling an outbreak.

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There are a lot of mixed messages out there about COVID vaccination in general – what would you like to say to the public as to why they should receive the latest COVID booster? What makes this dose different?

 There has been a lot of misinformation. We know vaccines have been around for 200 years, and they are very powerful. They have eliminated smallpox, almost eliminated polio, made childhood diseases such as measles, mumps far more uncommon. Vaccines work. There have always been people who doubted vaccines, but they were a small minority. In this pandemic, unfortunately, what you’ve seen is a lot of misinformation about vaccines. The new bivalent vaccines are specifically designed to target the Omicron variant, dominant BA.5 version. These vaccines should provide stronger, and better protection against infection, reduce transmission, and prevent against serious illness. We’ll know a lot more about it in the weeks and months ahead as more people get vaccinated. But right now, I think our expectation is that this is going to be a very useful vaccine.

Recently, the White House issued a statement that the COVID-19 vaccine will likely become another annual vaccine, just like the flu. Please explain the benefits when there is continued concern that the vaccine doesn’t necessarily prevent COVID-19 infection?

Let’s talk about why we decided that it was likely going to be annual for most people. For the average person, not the elderly or high risk, getting this new COVID vaccine should provide a high degree of protection against serious illness for a year. Why do we say that? On what basis? The previous vaccine, the booster from last year for a 40-year-old, would still provide a good degree of protection against a serious illness now. We think these new vaccines are going to do even better. That said, we do think high-risk people – elderly and immuno-compromised – may need protection more often than once a year. For instance, I have two elderly parents – both in their 80s. They got the new COVID booster last week before they went to Bihar, India. But, they may need another dose in March.

Last week, the White House sent an updated funding request of $22.4 billion to Congress to meet immediate short-term goals. What will happen if Congress fails to approve that request?

It’s very troubling that Congress has not supported this funding. The problem is that we have to make sure we have enough vaccines, enough treatments, enough tests for Americans this fall and winter. If Congress doesn’t give us that money, it will mean we’re not going to have enough testing for Americans. So if there is a surge of infections this fall, we will not have enough tests to meet the needs that people have. We will not have enough Personal Protective Equipment for doctors and nurses. We had made a commitment that we were going to have a stockpile of them so that if there is a surge, we would have plenty. There are real costs to not being able to get funding from Congress. It makes it much harder to fight the pandemic.

As an expert on pandemic preparedness, and the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, what is your candid view about the ongoing pandemic? How long will this go on? What are the preparedness efforts being undertaken to handle future epidemics and pandemics?

It’s a big set of three or four questions. So let me let me try to answer it in the following ways. First, in terms of where are we on the pandemic? We’re clearly in a better place than where we were, because so much of the world has gotten vaccinated. There’s so much immunity in the population. The other reason is we have treatments, we have testing, and we have a lot of capabilities. That said, there are still too many people getting infected and dying of this disease. So we still have a lot of work to do. What we want to do is focus on making sure that we’re getting people new updated vaccines, and getting treated. We still have 350 people dying every day – too many. We want to drive those numbers down. And we want to use this moment to start building infrastructure and capability to prevent future pandemics. Make sure we have a robust surveillance system. Ensure we are making scientific investments so that when there is a new respiratory pathogen, a new Coronavirus, and influenza or something else, we can build new treatments and vaccines very quickly. There’s a lot of work to be done to get ready. We need to be doing that as we’re fighting COVID.

Dr. Ashish Jha’s family, from left, Debra Stump, Rohan Jha, Maya Jha, and Nisha Jha. PHOTO: courtesy Dr. Ashish Jha

India and Indian-Americans are proud of your achievements and contributions. What is your message for the next generation of Indian-Americans?

This is a remarkable country. For a person like me who came from Bihar when I was nine years old and didn’t speak much English then – but through hard work, good fortune, and opportunity make it to the White House. I see that less as a personal accomplishment and more as a testament to this country. There are not very many other countries where an immigrant can come in and achieve this. My message to the next generation is you should set your aims high, and you should be ambitious about what you can accomplish. If you work hard, and if you play by the rules and do things that are focused on important work, there really is no shortage to what you can accomplish in this country.

Please tell us about your early life in India, and your journey to Canada and then to the United States?

I was born in Madhubani, Bihar. I still have very nice memories of family, cousins and friends there. The journey to Canada initially was difficult because I didn’t speak much English. I spoke a few words, but I couldn’t write or say a sentence. I remember the first six months or a year being very difficult. Of course, Canada was also very cold. We actually had no warm clothes coming from India. So the first year some family friends did a little coat drive for us so we actually could have coats over the winter. Those were difficult times. But the truth is, when you’re young, you’re resilient. Over time, we moved to America and got more and more opportunities in this country. And this became my home. I have a lot of love and affection for India of course. It has been a remarkable journey. But one thing I will say is that it’s not unique. There are a lot of other people from other countries who have had that same immigrant experience in the United States.

So tell us about your immediate family here.

My elderly parents live in New Jersey. Right now they’re in India – this is the first time they’ve gone to India since the pandemic. I have an older brother who lives in Los Angeles, with his wife and children. I live just outside of Boston in Newton with my wife and three children. They are 17, 15 and 10. And, of course my being in Washington has been difficult because they’re still there. But you will have to make sacrifices for important work when you are called to service.

Do you have family roots in India? How often do you go to India?

Dr. Ashish Jha, center, with his father Parmeshwar Jha, left, and his son, Rohan Jha. PHOTO: courtesy Maya Jha

Well, I haven’t been back since the pandemic began. Before the pandemic, I was going once or twice a year. A lot of it for work since I was running a Global Health Institute at Harvard and I was Dean at the Brown University School of Public Health. Actually, Brown was during the pandemic. My cousins are still in Bihar and Delhi – lots of families still there. While visiting India, half the time I would make it back to Bihar. It’s one thing to go to Delhi or Mumbai or Chennai, but to go all the way to the village in Bihar is a whole different challenge. I always remind people it takes longer to go from Delhi to Madhubani than it does from Delhi to Boston. My parents just told me there’s a direct flight now from Delhi to Darbhanga which never used to be. So that makes it easier.

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