In a positive and encouraging sign, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris announced last Monday the formation of a Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board—made up entirely of doctors, scientists, and former governmental health officials—and presented an updated version of their COVID-19 pandemic response plan. This fast announcement, just two days after the major news networks called the election for Biden, signals just how seriously the upcoming Biden administration is taking its response to the pandemic. At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we are enthused at this return to science when responding to the pandemic, and have a series of recommendations to help with this task, such as how to strengthen scientific integrity at the CDC.
With a qualified and impressive team of scientific experts in Biden’s advisory board and the announcement of a plan whose literal first promise is to always “listen to science,” the United States has the best chance it will ever get of coordinating an aggressive science-based response against the greatest public health crisis seen in a century.
The COVID-19 advisory board is packed with top health experts
The new advisory board is made up of 13 members, many of whom are women and people of color. The board is tasked with advising Biden, Harris, and the transition’s COVID-19 staff as they plan a federal response to the pandemic. According a Biden-Harris press announcement, “these leading scientists and public health experts will consult with state and local officials to determine the public health and economic steps necessary to get the virus under control, to deliver immediate relief to working families, to address ongoing racial and ethnic disparities, and to reopen our schools and businesses safely and effectively.”
According to Nature, the reaction of the scientific community to the advisory board has been incredibly positive, with many scientists praising the board as an experienced and impressive team. The three co-chairs of the advisory board are Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale physician and researcher; Vivek Murthy, a former US surgeon general from 2014 to 2017; and David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997. Many public health officials are celebrating Nunez-Smith’s leadership role. Her research has focused on promoting health equity in marginalized populations and studying discrimination in health care faced by marginalized populations, expertise that would be especially valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic which disproportionately harms people of color.
Murthy and Kessler have worked closely with Biden throughout the duration of the pandemic. They have led briefings for Biden on COVID-19 since the earliest days of the pandemic, as often as four times a week. During the briefings, Murthy and Kessler have also pulled in other former officials and experts in public health, infectious diseases and epidemiology to update Biden on the virus’s spread and the ongoing development of a vaccine. Murthy and Kessler have stellar records and, when serving in the government, both were willing to advocate for science-based actions. Murthy wrote a landmark paper in 2016 on drug and alcohol addiction, and he and his office sent millions of letters to doctors asking for their help to combat the opioid crisis. Kessler carried out numerous attempts to regulate cigarettes, oversaw the FDA’s development of nutrition labels, and worked to accelerate treatments for AIDS.
Two members of the advisory board served during the Trump administration and faced repercussions from the Trump administration’s anti-science actions. Rick Bright was the former head of the vaccine-development agency BARDA but was ousted by the Trump administration in April when he spoke out against the administration’s misinformation about hydroxychloroquine. Luciana Borio was FDA’s chief scientist and served on National Security Council global health security team, a team which was disbanded by the Trump administration in 2018.
The Biden-Harris COVID-19 plan promises to follow the science
Biden and Harris’ transition website has also updated its COVID-19 plan, which states that they will listen to the science, ensure that decisions are based on the advice of public health professionals, and promote trust and transparency in the government. The plan promises:
- Access to free, reliable testing
- Ramping up production and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Providing evidence-based guidance to communities
- Distributing treatments and vaccines in an equitable manner
- Protecting people who are at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms
- Rebuilding the ways the government protects against pandemic threats
- Implementing mask mandates
Several of the plan’s specifics are particularly notable. They are planning on evoking the Defense Production Act to increase PPE supplies, create a “Pandemic Testing Board” to produce and distribute millions of tests, and mobilize 100,000 people to perform community-focused contact tracing. Biden’s team are also indicating that they will allow the CDC and FDA to perform science-based actions without political interference. Specifically, they are requesting that the CDC issue numerous evidence-based guidances on how communities can navigate the pandemic, and they will take steps to ensure that the vaccine development at the FDA is non-political and led by scientists.
Additionally, Biden’s team is signaling that it will center racial equity in its pandemic response. One of their goals is to “establish a COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force, as proposed by Vice President-elect Harris, to provide recommendations and oversight on disparities in the public health and economic response. At the end of this health crisis, it will transition to a permanent Infectious Disease Racial Disparities Task Force.”
Hope during the pandemic’s worst stage
The US is in dire need of a strong, science-based response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the US is facing one of the darkest chapters of the pandemic. Daily case numbers are repeatedly spiking to the highest numbers ever observed, daily death totals are the highest levels seen since May, and COVID-19 hospitalizations are so high that many hospitals, especially in the Midwest and the West, are reaching their capacity to deliver care.
We are in desperate need of an administration willing and able to use science-based tools to slow the spread of this deadly pandemic. We at the Union of Concerned Scientists have recorded during the Trump administration numerous attacks on science during the pandemic, including recent actions like blocking the CDC from issuing a mask mandate for public transportation, delaying FDA’s strong science-based guidance on vaccine development, and substantially weakening a CDC no-sail order for cruise ships. The upcoming Biden administration promises to not only reverse these anti-science actions but to substantially increase the government’s role in combating the pandemic using robust scientific and equity measures. We will hold the Biden administration to these promises and we hold out hope that his team will “listen to the science” during this devastating crisis and protect the health and safety of millions of people across the US.