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Biden Nominees, Vaccine Plan Elevate Science in Trump Contrast

The recent round of scientific nominations and vaccine plans announced by the Biden-Harris transition team indicate President-elect Biden is making good on promises to make science-based policy decisions.

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

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

Groups like Research!America have advocated for elevating the president’s science adviser into the cabinet for years, and the organization’s president and CEO Mary Woolley called the announcement “an urgently important, strategic turning point for our nation.”

“Covid-19 is an all-too-clear harbinger,” she said. “If our nation does not assign a higher priority to [science and technology] as strategic assets essential to predicting, preempting, and defeating current and future threats confronting our nation, those threats will win.”

The Biden-Harris approach offers a stark contrast to the Trump administration, which didn’t appoint a science adviser more than a year and half into its administration marking the longest vacancy in that position since Congress created it in 1976. There were also allegations throughout the pandemic of the Trump administration trying to exert political influence over career scientists.

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

The Biden-Harris transition team coupled the announcement of the top scientific posts, including the decision to reappoint Francis S. Collins to lead the National Institutes of Health, with a new vaccine rollout plan and speech that appeared to echo recommendations of public health leaders.

When Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser on Covid-19, spoke Friday on NBC about the vaccine rollout, he said the Biden administration will work to correct an”attempt to rigidly stay with the prioritization” of who should get the vaccine.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel developed recommendations that said the first doses should go to frontline health workers, and nursing home residents and staff, and the concern was that the some jurisdictions were holding on to doses to administer to everyone in that priority group. Health officials worked with states the week of Jan. 11 to widen vaccine access after a slow start in getting shots into arms.

“There was a big of rigidity in not going from one to the other,” Fauci said about priority groups. “If you have a dose, give it and don’t be so rigid as to those early designations.”

Later that day, Biden used similar language when announcing a plan to increase vaccination by in part working with states to open up vaccinations to more priority groups.

“The process of establishing priority groups is driven by science, but the problem is the implementation has been too rigid and confusing,” Biden said. “We’ll fix the problem by encouraging states to allow more people to get vaccinated beyond health-care workers and move through these groups as quickly as states think they can.”

Biden’s plan to set up community vaccination sites with Federal Emergency Management Agency, use the Defense Production Act to ramp up the supply of vaccines and ancillary supplies such as syringes, and make it easier for personnel like retired health-care workers to become volunteer vaccine administrators, also echo public health officials. Georges E. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who has met with Biden’s incoming health leaders, offered these exact recommendations during a Research!America webinar Jan. 14.

“An all hands-on-deck, full response is important. We’ve got FEMA. We’ve got the National Guard and the military that we need to get involved in this,” Benjamin said, adding that there needs to be two million to three million vaccinations a day to reach herd immunity by early summer.

Likewise Biden said Friday, “Think of the people we deploy in natural disasters, experts at FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, our military medical personnel, and our first responders,” when mobilizing thousands of clinical and non-clinical professionals to ramp up vaccinations.

He also said the states that deploy their National Guard to respond to Covid-19 will qualify for 100% reimbursement. “The more people we vaccinate and the faster we do it, the sooner we can put this pandemic behind us.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloombergindustry.com