Obama names official Ron Klain to coordinate US Ebola response

US President Barack Obama (middle) holds a meeting with cabinet agencies coordinating the government's Ebola response in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on Oct 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama (middle) holds a meeting with cabinet agencies coordinating the government's Ebola response in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on Oct 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama on Friday named attorney Ron Klain to coordinate the US response to the Ebola outbreak, amid growing anxiety over its spread beyond West Africa.

The new “Ebola czar” will report directly to Obama’s homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and national security adviser Susan Rice.

A White House official said the longtime Democratic aide would ensure that “efforts to protect the American people by detecting, isolating and treating Ebola patients in this country are properly integrated but don’t distract from the aggressive commitment to stopping Ebola at the source in West Africa.”

Klain is a former senior aide to Obama, and served as chief of staff to both Vice-President Joe Biden and former vice-president Al Gore.

He currently heads Case Holdings – a holding company founded by former AOL chief executive Steve Case – and is general counsel at technology-oriented venture capital firm Revolution LLC.

A Liberian man died from Ebola in Texas on Oct 8 and two American nurses who treated him have also tested positive for the virus that has already killed more than 4,546 people and infected 9,191 in hard-hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The infection of the US nurses has embarrassed American health authorities, who faced questioning about how the disease – which kills around 70 per cent of those it infects in West Africa – had spread.

Asked for his reaction to the appointment of an “Ebola czar,” Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters he was focused on the care of stricken nurse Nina Pham, who arrived at a specialised hospital outside Washington late Thursday.

“I don’t know exactly what is meant by a czar, but we will certainly follow the lead of the president,” Fauci told reporters.

“I take care of patients and I do my job. Other people do their job.”

Fauci said Pham was in fair condition and was receiving “the best possible care.”

“She is very fatigued,” said Fauci. “This virus knocks you out.”

Meanwhile, US health authorities expanded the number of airline passengers they wanted to speak with after another Ebola-stricken nurse, Amber Vinson, flew from Texas to Ohio days before being diagnosed with Ebola.

Vinson reported no symptoms and a low-grade fever, and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention cleared her to board a domestic flight from Ohio to Texas on Oct 13.

Now, as many as 750 passengers who rode the same plane on five different trips are being sought, Frontier Airlines said, stressing that officials believe the risk of Ebola transmission was quite low.

The CDC said it was reaching out to those who flew on Vinson’s outgoing flight on October 10 from Dallas to Cleveland as well.

The expanded outreach was “based on additional information obtained during interviews of close contacts” of the nurse, the CDC said in a statement, but gave no further details.

As fear of Ebola spread across the United States, the Pentagon closed off a parking lot and one entrance Friday after a woman who had returned from Africa recently vomited outside the building.

The area was closed off “out of an abundance of caution,” the Defence Department said in a statement.

And a Texas health-care worker who handled samples from the Liberian Ebola victim has voluntarily quarantined herself aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean. She is currently considered at “very low risk” of infection.

Secretary of State John Kerry paid a rare US compliment to Cuba on Friday, acknowledging the communist island nation’s role in the global fight against Ebola.

“Already we are seeing nations large and small stepping up in impressive ways to make a contribution on the front lines,” Kerry told foreign diplomats in Washington as he pleaded for a greater mobilisation against the epidemic.

“Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals and it plans to send nearly 300 more.”

The US government rarely speaks of Cuba in friendly terms, and the two nations have been at odds for more than half a century.