U.S. president-elect Joe Biden has picked a former Food and Drug commissioner to lead vaccine science as part of his drive to put 100 million shots into the arms of Americans in his administration’s first 100 days to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. David Kessler, who will have the title of chief science officer of COVID response, headed the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s under presidents of both political parties. He has been acting as a top pandemic adviser to Biden and his appointment was announced Friday by the presidential transition office.
Kessler will work out of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, assuming responsibility for the scientific side of Operation Warp Speed, an effort launched under the Trump administration to rapidly develop vaccines and treatments. The drive has already helped produce two highly effective vaccines, and more are on the way.
A person advising the Biden transition team said Kessler will take on the role now being carried out by Dr. Moncef Slaoui, a prominent vaccine scientist and innovator who has been serving as chief advisor to Operation Warp Speed.
Kessler will co-ordinate vaccine review and approval, as well as the logistics of manufacturing millions of more doses. Experts say the U.S. will need to vaccinate upwards of 250 million people to approach the goal of “herd immunity,” where there is widespread resistance to virus allowing for a return to normal life.
This comes on the heels of an announcement on Thursday evening, in which Biden has unveiled a $1.9 trillion US coronavirus plan to end “a crisis of deep human suffering” by speeding up vaccines and pumping out financial help to those struggling with the pandemic’s prolonged economic fallout.
Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration and advance his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. On a parallel track, it delivers another round of aid to stabilize the economy while the public health effort seeks the upper hand on the pandemic.
“We not only have an economic imperative to act now — I believe we have a moral obligation,” Biden said in a nationwide address Thursday. At the same time, he acknowledged that his plan “does not come cheaply.”
Stimulus plan prospects in Senate unclear
Biden proposed $1,400 checks for most Americans, which on top of $600 provided in the most recent COVID-19 bill would bring the total to the $2,000 that Biden has called for. It would also extend a temporary boost in unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures through September.
The political outlook for the legislation remained unclear. In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and soon-to-be Senate leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, praised Biden for including liberal priorities, saying they would move quickly to pass it after Biden takes office next Wednesday.
But Democrats will have narrow margins in both chambers of Congress, and Republicans will likely push back on issues that range from increasing the minimum wage to providing more money for states, while demanding inclusion of their priorities, such as liability protection for businesses.
“Remember that a bipartisan $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill became law just 18 days ago,” tweeted Republican Sen. John Cornyn from Texas. But Biden says that was only a downpayment, and he promised more major legislation next month, focused on rebuilding the economy.
Biden’s relief bill would be paid for with borrowed money, adding to trillions in debt the government has already incurred to confront the pandemic. Aides said Biden will make the case that the additional spending and borrowing is necessary to prevent the economy from sliding into an even deeper hole. Interest rates are also low, making debt more manageable.
Economy linked with control of COVID-19
Biden has long held that economic recovery is inextricably linked with controlling the coronavirus, and that squares with the judgment of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful business lobbying group and traditionally an adversary of Democrats.
“We must defeat COVID before we can restore our economy and that requires turbocharging our vaccination efforts,” the Chamber said in a statement Thursday night, which welcomed Biden’s plan but stopped short of endorsing it.
So far, more than 385,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S, with daily deaths having topped 4,000. Government numbers out Thursday reported a jump in weekly unemployment claims, to 965,000, a sign that rising infections are forcing businesses to cut back and lay off workers.
Under Biden’s multi-pronged strategy, about $400 billion would go directly to combating the pandemic, while the rest is focused on economic relief and aid to states and municipalities.
About $20 billion would be allocated for a more disciplined focus on vaccination, on top of some $8 billion already approved by Congress. Biden has called for setting up mass vaccination centres and sending mobile units to hard-to-reach areas.
A month after the first vaccines were given in the U.S., the nation’s vaccination campaign is off to a slow start, with only about 11 million people getting the first of two shots, although more than 30 million doses have been delivered.
Biden called the vaccine rollout “a dismal failure so far” and said he would provide more details about his vaccination campaign on Friday.
The plan also provides $50 billion to expand testing, which is seen as key to reopening most schools by the end of the new administration’s first 100 days. About $130 billion would be allocated to help schools reopen without risking further contagion.
More direction for states planned in rollout
The plan would fund the hiring of an additional 100,000 public health workers, to focus on encouraging people to get vaccinated and on tracing the contacts of those infected with the coronavirus.
There’s also a proposal to boost investment in genetic sequencing to help track new virus strains, including the more contagious variants identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
WATCH l Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted grim January for the U.S. last month:
Biden is asking Americans to overcome their pandemic fatigue and recommit to wearing masks, practising social distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings, particularly larger ones.
Biden believes the key to speeding that up lies not only in delivering more vaccines but also in working closely with states and local communities to get shots into the arms of more people. The Trump administration provided the vaccine to states and set guidelines for who should get priority for shots, but largely left it up to state and local officials to organize their vaccination campaigns.
It’s still unclear how the new administration will address the issue of vaccine hesitancy, the doubts and suspicions that keep many people from getting a shot. Polls show it’s particularly an issue among Black Americans.