Optum CEO Witty To Take Leave To Join WHO’s COVID-19 Vaccine Effort

UnitedHealth Group’s Sir Andrew Witty will take a leave of absence running Optum to “co-lead a global effort of the World Health Organization” to develop a vaccine for the Coronavirus strain COVID-19, the company said Wednesday morning.

Witty is CEO of UnitedHealth Group’s fast growing Optum health services business and previously ran the global drug and vaccine maker GlaxoSmithKline Plc. Witty, who joined the executive suite of UnitedHealth Group when he became CEO of Optum in March of 2018, will take his leave of absence effective April 20 and plans to return to UnitedHealth and Optum by the end of this year, the company said. 

Prior to joining UnitedHealth and Optum, Witty was CEO and a director of GSK from 2008 until 2017, having joined the global drug and vaccine giant in 1985. “While CEO of GSK, he gained global recognition for his efforts to develop and expand access to critically needed vaccines,” UnitedHealth said in its statement.

“I am deeply honored to help lead this mission to seek a COVID-19 vaccine and am confident the people of Optum will remain relentless in their work to help their customers, communities and each other each day,” Witty said in a statement from UnitedHealth Group Wednesday morning. “I look forward to rejoining them on the other side of this crisis to continue helping make the health system work better for everyone.” 

During Witty’s temporary assignment, UnitedHealth Group CEO David Wichmann will oversee Optum, the company said.

“Andrew brings the perfect combination of deep global health expertise, innovation and operating skills and, above all, a passion for, and considerable success in, developing vaccines to drive this critical effort,” Wichmann said. “The pride we take in Andrew’s willingness to serve during this global health crisis is exceeded only by our confidence in his ability to support the global vaccine development effort as quickly and effectively as possible.”

The announcement of Witty’s departure to WHO Witty’s departure comes less than 24 hours after the U.S. President Donald Trump said he would stop funding the health organization. Trump’s move, amid criticism of his response to combatting COVID-19, was widely criticized by global health leaders both in the U.S. and abroad given the international fight against the deadly virus. 

“During the worst public health crisis in a century, halting funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a dangerous step in the wrong direction that will not make defeating COVID-19 easier,” American Medical Association president Dr. Patrice A. Harris said.“Fighting a global pandemic requires international cooperation and reliance on science and data. Cutting funding to the WHO – rather than focusing on solutions – is a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world.” 

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