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Biden announces COVID-19 task force

President-elect also cheers announcement by companies that vaccine is effective

President-elect Joe Biden’s announcement of his COVID-19 advisory board Monday was designed to show that his first priority is to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

The experts will advise the incoming Biden administration as it prepares to orchestrate the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team will be led by three physicians who will co-chair the task force:

  • David A. Kessler, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, is a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who served under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
  • Vivek Murthy was surgeon general in the Obama administration.
  • Marcella Nunez-Smith is a professor of medicine at Yale University who focuses on equity in health care for various disadvantaged populations. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit racial minority communities, especially Black, American Indian and Latino populations.

“Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts,” Biden said in a statement. “The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations.”

[Biden’s transition moving ahead at full speed]

Biden also cheered an announcement Monday by vaccine developers Pfizer and BioNTech that interim results from their two-dose vaccine indicate that it is 90 percent effective, far surpassing expectations. The FDA has said any vaccine it authorizes must show at least 50 percent efficacy in a median of patients.

Trump administration officials planned on Monday to hold their own task force meeting and provide an update on testing, which is overseen by Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir.

The United States has seen about 10 million diagnosed cases and 237,584 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Biden previously announced a pandemic plan that shares broad goals with the Trump administration’s efforts but differs significantly in its approach to the federal government’s role. It would involve creating a board to oversee test production and distribution. Biden has said he would boost the federal government’s role in establishing testing sites, including doubling the number of drive-through sites. He would intervene more in the market to ensure that supplies are adequate and closely manage data reporting.

Under Biden’s plan, the government would hire 100,000 workers to support states with tasks like tracing the contacts of infected people. Trump’s approach is more state-led, with states getting $11 billion appropriated by Congress to use for testing-related activities, including contact tracing.

Congressional Democrats quickly amplified Biden’s announcement.

“Unlike the Trump Administration, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris take this pandemic seriously,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass. “Their swift formation of a COVID-19 advisory board should reassure the American people that crushing the virus and reviving our economy will be top priorities in the next White House.”

Hopes rise for potential vaccine

The announcement by Pfizer and BioNTech came after an independent data safety monitoring board analyzed its clinical trial results.

The Phase 3 study enrolled 43,538 participants, some receiving the vaccine and some receiving a placebo, and 94 got sick with COVID-19. The study is not complete and will continue until 164 people get sick with COVID-19.

“It’s a great day for science. It’s a great day for humanity,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said on CNBC Monday morning.

Of U.S. study participants, 30 percent were from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, Pfizer said.

House Republicans criticized the timing of the companies’ statement.

“Pfizer won’t admit it, but Pfizer delayed announcement until AFTER election out of fear of retribution by #Socialist #Democrats who would be angered at quicker (pre-election) vaccines to save American lives,” tweeted Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.

Many hurdles remain before the vaccine can be deployed and utilized to help the country reach herd immunity that could control the deadly virus that has upended the lives of millions of people.

The data will be analyzed again once there are more participants who have gotten sick with COVID-19. The vaccine needs to receive authorization from the FDA and will then be reviewed by the agency’s independent advisors. It will then be reviewed again by independent advisors with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure the vaccine is safe and effective enough to administer to millions of people.

Deployment will also be a challenge and could take months, especially because Pfizer’s vaccine requires storage at negative 70 degrees Celsius, colder than a winter day on the South Pole.

[Deep freezers and dry ice for Pfizer vaccine may face shortages]

Biden said the company shared the results with him Sunday night. But he also cautioned that people should still be wearing masks and taking other precautions.

“This news follows a previously announced timeline by industry officials that forecast vaccine approval by late November. Even if that is achieved, and some Americans are vaccinated later this year, it will be many more months before there is widespread vaccination in this country,” he said.

The president-elect’s advisory board includes 10 other experts: Luciana Borio, Rick Bright, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Atul Gawande, Celine Gounder, Julie Morita, Michael Osterholm, Loyce Pace, Robert Rodriguez and Eric Goosby.

  • Borio is a biodefense and emerging diseases expert who has served in leadership roles at the FDA and the National Security Council.
  • Bright is a vaccine development expert and former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority until earlier this year, when he alleges the Trump administration pushed him out.
  • Emanuel is a University of Pennsylvania oncologist and former special adviser for health policy to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. He chairs the Department of Bioethics at The Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health.
  • Gawande is a Harvard University professor of surgery and health policy and former HHS advisor during the Clinton administration.
  • Gounder is a New York University professor of medicine and expert on controlling epidemics, including tuberculosis and HIV.
  • Morita is executive vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and has served on the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
  • Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and served as the Minnesota Department of Health state epidemiologist.
  • Pace is the executive director and president of the Global Health Council.
  • Rodriguez is a professor of emergency medicine at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine.
  • Goosby is a professor of medicine at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine and was the founding director of the Ryan White CARE Act during the Clinton administration.

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