HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Boosts Science in Contrast to Trump

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The recent round of scientific nominations and vaccine plans announced by President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team indicate the incoming administration is vying to make good on promises to make science-based policy decisions.

Throughout his campaign and after the election, Biden has promised to make such decisions, which he then reiterated during remarks on Friday on vaccine rollout. “Our administration will lead with science and scientists.”

The recent slate of announcements seem to back that up. When leading geneticist and Broad Institute founder Eric Lander becomes Biden’s science adviser and head of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, it will mark the first time a president has elevated the position to his Cabinet. The Biden team also announced a slate of other top positions in OSTP.

Groups like Research!America have advocated for elevating the president’s science adviser to the Cabinet for years, and the organization’s CEO Mary Woolley called the announcement “an urgently important, strategic turning point for our nation.” The coronavirus “is an all-too-clear harbinger,” Woolley said.

The Biden approach offers a stark contrast to the Trump administration, which didn’t name a science adviser for over a year and half into its administration, marking the longest vacancy in that position since Congress created it in 1976. There were also allegations through the Covid-19 crisis of the Trump administration seeking to exert political influence over career scientists.

“An evidence-based approach to policy must direct the way forward on the nation’s health challenges,” said David Skorton, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, in a statement. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

More on Biden’s Covid-19 Agenda

Biden Plans 10 Days of Action on Four Crises: Biden plans an early blitz of executive action to reverse some of President Donald Trump’s most contentious policies and address the coronavirus pandemic, according to an outline of Biden’s first 10 days in office. The plan, spelled out in a memo over the weekend by Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain to incoming White House advisers, will address what Klain called “four overlapping and compounding crises,” with Covid-19 at the top.

Klain said Biden would begin with about a dozen executive actions tomorrow. First-day orders will focus on measures to mitigate the pandemic and its economic fallout, including extending student loan forbearance past Jan. 31 and a temporary ban on evictions, Klain said. Biden will also launch a “100 Day Masking Challenge,” imposing new mandates requiring masks on U.S. property and for interstate transportation. Read more from Gregory Korte.

Fauci Confident in 100 Million Vaccine Goal: Biden’s promise of administering 100 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine in 100 days is “absolutely a doable thing,” Anthony Fauci said. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he believes that Biden won’t hesitate to “use whatever mechanisms we can” to expedite the production and distribution of more shots, including through the Defense Production Act. “The feasibility of his goal is absolutely clear,” he said. Ros Krasny and Yueqi Yang have more.

Biden Adds Ex-FDA Chief for Virus Response: Biden will install David Kessler, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s, to serve as the chief science officer of the Covid-19 response. His job will include steering what the Trump administration dubbed Operation Warp Speed and replacing Moncef Slaoui, who served as science chief for the vaccine development and distribution initiative. Read more from Josh Wingrove, Angelica LaVito, and John Lauerman.

Biden Taps Former HHS Official as Becerra Deputy: Biden has chosen Andrea Palm to be deputy Health and Human Services secretary. Palm, who currently serves as secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, would be returning to HHS after being a senior staffer there under the Obama administration. If both are confirmed, she would be No. 2 at HHS under Xavier Becerra, who Biden picked to be HHS secretary, Magan Crane reports.

Biden Rejects Trump Plan to Rescind Travel Bans: Biden’s incoming administration rejected a move by Trump to rescind coronavirus-related travel bans for non-American citizens arriving from the European Union, the U.K. and Brazil, which means the curbs will stay in effect. Trump said in a White House announcement yesterday that the bans could be lifted because of a decision last week by the administration to require international travelers to present either the results of a negative recent coronavirus test or evidence that they had already recovered from the disease. The change would go into effect starting Jan. 26, six days after Biden takes office. But Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Biden, said the incoming administration plans to block Trump’s move. Justin Sink and Alan Levin have more.

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More on the Pandemic

Vaccine Disparities Raise New Alarm: Global gaps in access to Covid-19 vaccines are raising concerns that the continued spread of the coronavirus will breed more dangerous versions of the pathogen, weakening medical tools and further crippling economies. In a race to catch up with emerging coronavirus strains, rich countries are already benefiting from potent vaccines. While the U.S., Britain and European Union have given citizens roughly 24 million doses so far, more than half of the shots administered globally, vast numbers of countries have yet to start their campaigns. Read more from James Paton.

  • The virus variant that emerged in the U.K. and sparked concerns of faster spread could become dominant in the U.S. as soon as March, government public-health researchers said in a report Friday. Several lines of evidence indicate the strain spreads faster than other versions, and steps should be taken to reduce its transmission, including further genomic surveillance and adherence to public-health measures like masks and testing, the CDC said. Read more from Emma Court.

U.S. Boosts Claims Virus May Have Escaped From Lab: The State Department on Friday said it possesses new information suggesting the pandemic may have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan and not contact with infected animals, the latest salvo in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Beijing over the virus’s origins. The U.S. floated evidence that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in fall 2019, prior to the first identified case of the outbreak in the surrounding city, with symptoms it said were consistent with either Covid-19 or common seasonal illnesses. Read more from Bill Faries.

  • In response, China accused the U.S. of spreading “lies” and “conspiracy theories.” The State Department’s “fact sheet” on the coronavirus origins released Friday was “full of fallacies,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said yesterday, dismissing the claims as the “last madness” of outgoing Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. Read more from Bloomberg News.

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Global Headlines:

What Else to Know

House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee Leaders: House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) on Friday announced the subcommittee chairs for the 117th Congress, including the return of Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) to lead the health panel. Pallone also released the subcommittee rosters. Find that list here. The choices now must be approved by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and the full caucus.

Nixing of Gun Research Funds Draws Scrutiny: Trump‘s plan to nix funding for gun violence research in his final days in office drew the ire of congressional Democrats, as cities across the U.S. face records in homicides. The White House would revoke $25 million in firearm research funds split between the National Institutes of Health and the CDC, part of a $27.4 billion rescission package released last week that marked a win for Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who led the push to restore the fund. DeLauro has said Trump’s rescission plan will be ignored. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

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