WASHINGTON — A member of President-elect Joe Biden’s Covid-19 task force is advocating for federal scientists — rather than high-ranking political appointees — to take on the daily work of informing the public about the pandemic beginning in January.
Celine Gounder, a task force member and veteran infectious diseases specialist, specifically highlighted two veteran Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists who appeared at public briefings early in the pandemic but largely disappeared from public view in the spring. One, Nancy Messonnier, infamously enraged President Trump when she forecast that Covid-19 would cause “severe” disruptions to American life.
“I personally would love it if Anne Schuchat and Nancy Messonnier were the ones we were hearing from every day at daily CDC briefings,” Gounder told STAT. “It may not be exciting in a sexy TV way, but it’s exciting to me that this is a return to science.”
Gounder’s push is a marked shift from the current administration’s messaging strategy. Trump has largely sidelined career scientists in favor of higher-ranking officials including Vice President Mike Pence and health secretary Alex Azar, and now has eschewed briefings altogether.
Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, has run the agency in an acting capacity on numerous occasions. Both Schuchat and Messonnier, who directs the CDC’s immunizations and respiratory diseases department, were a fixture at press briefings in early 2020 before Messonnier’s warning about the pandemic’s impact sent markets tumbling.
Gounder’s remarks echo pledges during the campaign from Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general and one of the Biden task force’s three co-chairs, as well Biden’s campaign-trail pledge to “listen to the scientists.”
Major figures outside governments have also specifically cited Messonnier as an emblem of the federal government’s largely failed pandemic response. In an interview at the STAT Summit on Tuesday, Bill Gates said Messonnier “should have been the visible face” of the agency throughout the pandemic, arguing “the CDC was not allowed to do its job.”
Wednesday evening, the CDC announced it would hold its first press briefing in months. While the briefing will be conducted by two career agency scientists, neither Messonier nor Schuchat is scheduled to speak. Since the late-February controversy, Messonnier has continued in her CDC role and has played a substantial role in Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine initiative.
Biden’s broader coronavirus messaging strategy will require more finesse than simply elevating career scientists. Gounder and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale physician and researcher who is one of the Biden task force’s three co-chairs, said Biden will need help from figures outside the government — including many who did not support Biden prior to his election.
The panel in recent weeks has acknowledged the need to recruit entertainers, religious leaders, and even conservative politicians to impress upon Americans the need to wear face coverings, practice social distancing, and seek a Covid-19 vaccine once one is available.
That search, Gounder said, isn’t merely a matter of finding “the smartest person in the room,” but rather, finding someone who Americans trust on a deeper, emotional level.
“That may not be me, that may not be Dr. Fauci, that may not be Vivek [Murthy] or Atul Gawande,” she said, referencing the renowned government immunologist and two fellow members of the Biden task force. “I don’t think [the whole communications effort] can be us, because we simply are not going to be the right people for every American.”
The question of who, if anyone, Biden can recruit to convince millions of Americans to heighten their pandemic precautions has taken on additional urgency in the two weeks since Election Day. The U.S. in recent days has repeatedly broken records for new Covid-19 cases in a single day. Several cities across the country have little or no remaining hospital capacity, and death rates have begun to climb in the wake of the increased infection levels.
Biden has warned that President Trump’s refusal to concede the result of the Nov. 3 election could have dire consequences for the federal government’s ability to distribute vaccines, treatments, and protective gear for medical workers once he takes office on Jan. 20.
Public messaging, however, is one of the few areas that Biden’s team can tackle head-on even without the Trump administration’s cooperation. Gounder, a veteran of the Ebola epidemic, said Biden’s advisers would likely lean on political figures, entertainers, and religious leaders to help convince individual communities to buy into basic public health measures like mask use and social distancing.
“In Guinea, in West Africa, during Ebola, we spent a lot of time working with imams there who were not necessarily huge fans of the U.S. government,” Gounder said. “But doing something on behalf of their congregation, on behalf of their community, was something they cared about. Empowering them to do that really worked. And I think there might be some parallels here, where we might not be on the same political team, but we all care about these communities. I think we can at least come together on that.”
As case levels continue to skyrocket, downplaying Covid-19 will become an increasingly untenable position, asserted Nunez-Smith, the task force co-chair..
“The narrative has shifted for many, many people who have been skeptical of the conversations about how this is a real virus, it’s very dangerous, that there are things we can do to mitigate it,” she told STAT. “It is getting harder and harder to find a person who doesn’t know someone who has been really impacted and affected by Covid-19.”
Like Biden, both Gounder and Nunez-Smith warned that the Trump administration’s refusal to facilitate an orderly transition has already damaged the Biden team’s ability to access data regarding vaccine manufacturing, hospital capacity, and other key public health metrics.
Despite the obstacles, however, both painted an optimistic picture of the Biden administration’s early days, which are likely to include a bolstered role for career staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a coordinated effort to encourage Americans to seek Covid-19 vaccinations, if they’re available.
Restoring trust in vaccine safety will likely be a major determinant in the country’s ability to effectively contain the virus in 2021. But amid Trump’s lofty promises of an Election Day vaccine approval and Democrats’ warnings of political interference at the Food and Drug Administration, interest in seeking a vaccine has plummeted.
One recent survey, however, bodes well for Americans’ interest in vaccines under development by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a STAT-Harris Poll survey released Nov. 10 said they would seek to receive a vaccine that reduced their risk of contracting Covid-19 by 75% or more; recently released data shows that both vaccine candidates reduce infection rates by at over 90%.
Amid the controversy, a number of states, including New York and California, took the rare step of forming independent vaccine safety advisory boards, citing concerns about political interference at the FDA. So, too, did the National Medical Association, a group representing Black doctors, citing the medical field’s past abuses of people of color and concerns about adequate diversity in clinical trial populations.
Nunez-Smith, whose expertise and research portfolio lies in health equity and racial health disparities, stopped short of endorsing the states’ and NMA’s independent vaccine-review efforts. But she acknowledged ongoing mistrust for the federal government as well as continued reluctance from communities of color to receive vaccines that, by the federal government’s own branding, were developed at “warp speed.”
“People need the reassurance that there aren’t safety and efficacy steps skipped,” Nunez-Smith said. “I am not endorsing parallel review processes. I’m endorsing the transparency of the review processes that we have in existence in our federal government. People need to be able to look and see and ask questions and get answers, and be reassured. There’s absolutely the right to that.”