Tackling COVID Top Priority for New Administration

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The first public announcement from the Biden-Harris transition team was to name members of a COVID-19 advisory board charged with initiating policies and actions to combat the fast-rising infection rate in the United States

President-elect Joe Biden hit the ground running this week with initiatives to combat the widening coronavirus pandemic. The first public announcement from the Biden-Harris transition team was to name members of a COVID-19 advisory board charged with initiating policies and actions to combat the fast-rising infection rate in the United States.

The 13-member panel includes well-known scientists, physicians, and public health experts. Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler is one of three co-chairs, in addition to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Yale University public health professor Marcella Nunez-Smith. The task force also includes former Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) Rick Bright, former FDA official and national security advisor Luciana Borio, health policy advisors Ezekiel Emanuel and Atul Gawande, and infectious disease experts Eric Goosby and Michael Osterholm. The group has the task of advising the incoming Biden administration on initial public actions and communications related to the pandemic. It will consult with state and local officials on public health and economic steps to get the virus under control, along with ways to provide relief to families and to reopen schools and businesses safely.

In addition, the incoming Biden administration has formed a special coronavirus transition team to lay the groundwork for responding to the pandemic before and immediately after the official inauguration of the new president in January. This much larger task force includes transition officials from several federal agencies involved in dealing with COVID-19. This team of more than 50 federal officials is headed by a central coordinating group to oversee activities related to domestic programs, national security and foreign policy issues, and technical and legal policies. One aim is to set priorities for gathering information from the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Homeland Security, and State, among others, once the Biden transition team gains access to federal agency data and resources—normal and expected actions still being delayed by the Trump White House.

Initially, the Biden transition team has indicated it plans to work with and maintain operations of the current administration’s Operation Warp Speed (OWS), which has overseen and funded the production of promising COVID-19 vaccines and is in the midst of planning the logistics for a complex vaccine distribution process as data emerges on safe and effective preventives. Biden advisors have discussed revising the OWS name to reduce any public perception that it is emphasizing speed over safety, as part of efforts to rebuild confidence and acceptance of vaccines and therapies that gain FDA approval in the coming weeks.


The Biden pandemic plan is expected to build on campaign documents that highlighted the importance of slowing community spread of the virus through greatly increased COVID-19 testing, expanding the nation’s cadre of public health workers, ensuring access to health insurance, and providing states with funds and resources to distribute vaccines and therapies effectively and equitably. To combat continuing charges from the Trump White House that politics has motivated recent vaccine clinical trial efficacy announcements, Biden emphasizes the need to “put scientists in charge of all decisions on safety and efficacy,” to publicly release clinical data on any FDA-approved vaccines, and to have FDA career staff report publicly on questions related to product approvals.

Meanwhile, speculation continues over who the President-elect will name to lead HHS and other health agencies—senior roles that usually are lower priorities for new administrations but now are considered critical for the nation to combat the pandemic and restore economic health. Through his campaign, Biden consulted with a wide circle of former Obama administration public health leaders, generating much speculation about who now will play leading roles. Normally, new administrations announce main Cabinet officials first before filling out the numerous agency office directors. But in the current climate, new leaders for FDA and the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention may come sooner.