President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team just unveiled the cadre of scientists and physicians who will shape his policies through a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, including one federal-vaccine-official-turned-whistleblower who criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the virus and resigned last month.
The composition of Biden’s “Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board” underscores the commitment the president-elect has made to prioritizing the expertise of health officials and researchers over pundits and political allies, a major break from President Trump.
“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 Monday. “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 website lists COVID-19 as one of his administration’s four key priorities—the three others are the economy, racial justice, and climate change. He has pledged to offer evidence-based guidance, establish a nationwide mask mandate, work out an equitable distribution of vaccines, and increase testing and access to personal protective equipment (PPE), among other goals.
The new COVID-19 transition team will be chaired by former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. David Kessler, former surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy, and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale University professor whose research focuses on promoting healthcare equity among marginalized populations—like the Black and brown communities the virus has impacted most.
Those three officials, alongside 10 other doctors and policy experts, will guide Biden’s team through the winter, and what is already one of the darkest periods of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ll also work closely with Beth Cameron and Rebecca Katz, who are serving as transition advisers, according to a statement released on Monday. Cameron helped create the Obama administration’s “pandemic playbook,” which the Trump administration ignored, while Katz is director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Nunez-Smith, Murthy, and Kessler were already among the experts who briefed Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on the pandemic in August, STAT reported. But the crisis has grown considerably worse since then. This weekend, the U.S. became the first nation to surpass 10 million virus infections, according to Reuters, and massive outbreaks are bludgeoning states including the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. As of Sunday afternoon, more than 236,000 Americans had died of the virus, according to government data.
The U.S. response to the pandemic has so far been decidedly partisan. Trump, who has still not conceded the race, repeatedly claimed during the final weeks of his campaign that the country was “rounding the corner” on the virus when it wasn’t, and sought to draw people to his base by arguing that a Biden presidency would further destroy a pandemic-ravaged economy. To bring the country back from that—especially when simple directives like mask mandates have become divisive—could prove challenging.
Meanwhile, Trump’s current White House coronavirus task force has reportedly become rife with discord among its members. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in October that Trump hadn’t attended a meeting in several months.
Trump, for his part, celebrated one potential success story Monday: Pfizer says its experimental vaccine, developed with partner BioNTech, was found to be 90 percent effective.
Here’s what else you need to know about Biden’s advisory team:
Who all is on it?
Aside from the three co-chairs, there are 10 experts who will serve as members of a board that’s almost entirely made up of doctors.
Among the most recognizable names is Rick Bright, a vaccine development expert who has said he was ousted from his leadership role with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a government office that supports the creation and procurement of medical products like vaccines and drugs. In a whistleblower complaint that was first filed in May and amended last month, Bright alleged he was sidelined and demoted to a position with the National Institutes of Health after he insisted the government focus its funding on “safe and scientifically vetted solutions” at a time when President Trump was mostly laser-focused on the unproven use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for treatment. Bright resigned from the National Institutes of Health last month.
Biden’s transition team did not mention Bright’s whistleblower activity in their press release Monday, describing him as BARDA’s former director and ex-deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“From the very beginning of this outbreak, this administration has not told Americans the truth about this virus,” Bright told NBC News in October. “The political interference has not stopped at all. I believe it's intensified.”
Here are the other officials serving on the advisory team, many of whom have worked for or with the federal government before:
- Dr. Atul Gawande: Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He’s also an author and staff writer for the New Yorker, and founder of Ariadne Labs, a joint center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that focuses on tools to improve healthcare delivery, and Lifebox, a non-governmental dedicated to making surgery and anaesthesia safer in low-resource countries.
- Dr. Luciana Borio: Borio specializes in biodefense, emerging infectious diseases, complex public health emergencies, and medical product development, according to a press release from Biden’s transition team Monday. She’s vice president for technical staff at In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture-capital arm, and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
- Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel: Emanuel is an oncologist who holds several titles at the University of Pennsylvania, including vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy. He’s also considered one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act.
- Dr. Celine Gounder: Gounder is an infectious disease specialist, internist, and epidemiologist who studied tuberculosis and HIV from 1998 to 2012. She’s a clinical assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and, like Gawande, she’s also written for a variety of media outlets, including the New Yorker.
- Dr. Julie Morita: Morita is executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest health philanthropy group in the country, and previously worked as medical director, chief medical officer, and commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health, according to her biography on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s website.
- Dr. Michael Osterholm: Osterholm holds several titles at the University of Minnesota, including director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). He served as science envoy for health security on behalf of the State Department from June 2018 through May 2019, worked in the Minnesota Department of Health for 24 years, and co-authored a book titled “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs.”
- Loyce Pace: Pace is executive director and president of Global Health Council, and has worked with Physicians for Human Rights and Catholic Relief Services.
- Dr. Robert Rodriguez: Rodriguez is a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and works in the emergency departments and intensive care units of two major trauma centers. He’s authored more than 100 scientific publications, including work on COVID-19’s impact on the mental health of frontline providers, according to a press release Monday.
- Dr. Eric Goosby: Goosby is also a professor at the University of California San Francisco, School of Medicine, but specializes in infectious diseases. Notably, he was the founding director of the largest federally funded HIV/AIDS program, the Ryan White Care Act, and served as ambassador-at-large in the Obama Administration, where he implemented the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.