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US Health Chief Pledges More Action If Ebola Spreads

FILE - In this May 11, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump speaks during an event about prescription drug prices with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.

President Donald Trump's top health official said Wednesday that the U.S. and global partners will “take the steps necessary” to try to contain a new Ebola outbreak, asserting that the fight against infectious diseases is one of the administration’s top priorities for the World Health Organization, the U.N. agency taking the lead.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar stopped short of predicting whether the outbreak in Congo that’s believed to have killed at least 27 people will be contained, but he praised WHO’s early response and vowed: “If it spreads, we will take further actions.”

Azar’s comments on Ebola came in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, which also touched on universal health care, U.S. prescription-drug prices, and the recent revelations of a $1.2 million payout by Swiss drugs giant Novartis last year to Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharma companies, said Cohen was hired to advise on how the Trump administration might approach health care policy. Experts have pointed out that Novartis needs FDA approval for the sale of its drugs and that company officials have spoken approvingly of rolling back the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, a Trump campaign promise largely unfulfilled.

“I don’t and won’t comment on the particulars of any individual situation,” said Azar, a former executive with drugmaker Eli Lilly.

“The president has talked about how extensively ‘pharma’ generally spends money on lobbying. And we have said: You really don’t need to spend that money on lobbying because the president and the secretary have been very transparent about where we are going with drug prices: We’re going to lower drug prices in the United States,” he said.

A health worker prepares an Ebola vaccine to administer to health workers during a vaccination campaign in Mbandaka, Congo, May 21, 2018.
A health worker prepares an Ebola vaccine to administer to health workers during a vaccination campaign in Mbandaka, Congo, May 21, 2018.

The response to the Ebola outbreak by WHO and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has emerged as a major concern as ministers like Azar and his counterparts from other nations gather this week for the World Health Assembly in Geneva. The conclave lays out the agenda of the U.N. agency, which reaps hundreds of millions in U.S. funding each year.

“I think it best not to make predictions when dealing with infectious disease,” Azar said cautiously, when asked if the outbreak will be contained. “We will take the steps necessary, we will act aggressively, forcefully, in partnership across the world community to do everything to contain it.”

“I think that what we’re seeing is that we’re taking it very seriously from Day One,” he said.

A day earlier, Azar told the Assembly the U.S. was committing an additional $7 million for the Ebola response, raising its total to $8 million. The WHO has launched a “strategic response plan” for itself and partner organizations that seeks nearly $26 million to battle the outbreak, a figure that’s expected to rise.

“We’re also grateful for other countries that have stepped up to the plate. And we hope others will do the same,” Azar added.

Azar said the “first and foremost mission” that the U.S. and the world community look to the WHO for is its “central role around infectious disease and emergency preparedness and response.”

Azar also underscored a Trump administration grievance: that other developed countries are “free riding off U.S. investment and innovation” in medicines and health care. The White House says countries that regulate the price of drugs contribute to higher costs in the U.S. and keep their own costs artificially low.

Azar said he delivered that message to his peers in Geneva.

“It has been a thoughtful response,” he said, when asked about their reaction. “It has not been reflexive, it has been a sense of, ‘We’re in this together. We do need to work to support innovation.’”

But he said he was leaving the details to others.

“I’m not here to do trade negotiations. I have delivered the message and said our trade negotiators are coming: Be ready!” he said with a laugh. “I have said we have our own job: The president is going to bring down American drug costs. But they’ll have their job.”

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