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Why Isn't Obama's Top Pandemic Expert In Her Job Yet?

If you had to conjure up the perfect official to advise President Obama about the swine flu outbreak, it'd probably be somebody who had a strong background in public health--say, somebody who had run the public health department for a vast, densely populated city like New York City.

It'd be better, still, if this person had experience in the federal government, as well, perhaps in the Department of Health and Human Servcies. And it'd be just perfect if this person's portfolio included crafting the federal pandemic response strategy.

Of course, you'd want this person to have a record of achievement. You'd be pleased to learn this person was the youngest ever to serve as that city's health commissioner--and that, in the job, that person had managed to increase the child vaccination rate while reducing the incidence of tuberculosis.

You'd also want to see evidence of this person's judgment and vision--like if, hypothetically, this person had testified to Congress about the threat of bioterrorism in 2001, months before the 9/11 attacks and anthrax scare.

As you've probably guessed by now, President Obama has already appointed just such a person to his administration. It's Maragaret Hamburg, who is in line to become commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration--one of the key agencies dealing with the swine flu outbreak.

You can read her biography here. And if you want to get a glimpse of her thoughts on pandemic response, here is that 2001 testimony on bioterrorism.

But there's one problem. Hamburg isn't at FDA yet. Her confirmation hearings won't take place until May 12. That means it'll be at least two weeks, perhaps more, before she assumes the job.

Today I asked around, in the administration and on Capitol HIll, whether there was some way to move things along more quickly. Nobody I reached seemed to think so. And, oddly, nobody seemed too worked up about the delay.

To which I say...huh?

Thus far, it looks like the swine flu outbreak isn't the the sort of lethal pandemic that experts have been dreading for years. It spreads easily but, at least in this country, it's proven relatively mild. From what we know, virtually everybody who has gotten the disease has recovered. It also appears the illness is responsive to antiviral drugs.

But, as public health officials will tell you, there's no way to be certain that swine flu won't become something more serious, whether right away or in a second wave during the flu season. That's why government needs to be preparing now, without wasting time and with the best possible expertise at hand. And while the govenrment is--by virtually all accounts--doing a great job so far, Hamburg would provide expertise as well as, if not better than, anybody in the country.

Confirming her shouldn't be terribly difficult. Earlier this week, Tevi Troy, a deputy HHS secretary during the Bush administration, penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed urging that Hamburg get a speedy confirmation.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but that sounds right to me. There must be some way to move up the confirmation--or, barring that, to bring her into the policy discussions. It would be an unusual move, I know, but it's an unusual--not to mention unsettling--situation.

--Jonathan Cohn 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images