Biden dissolves Covid-19 panel that advised his transition

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s coronavirus advisory board is disbanding, according to two of its members.

The group, which Biden introduced almost immediately after he was elected president in November, consisted of leading doctors, researchers, and public health experts. Led by three of the president’s top health aides, it conducted regular meetings and served as a sounding board for the transition’s pandemic response. Many members appeared frequently in TV or radio interviews speaking on Biden’s behalf.

The group dissolved upon Biden’s swearing-in on Wednesday. But its members aren’t going far: Its three co-chairs have already been tapped for formal Biden administration roles. Many of those who haven’t accepted government jobs plan to continue meeting on their own, essentially forming a shadow advisory committee outside the auspices of the White House.

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In an interview, Zeke Emanuel, an advisory board member and former Obama administration health policy adviser, called the panel “the best group I’ve ever been a part of.” Members enjoyed the group too much to let it disband for good, he said. Many plan to continue attending meetings and formulating policy recommendations they can then share with the public — even if not through formal Biden administration channels.

“We decided that, well, we don’t have to be an official body,” Emanuel said. “We can just get together and share our understanding of what’s happening, and people have various outlets to make that understanding effective.”

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Rules that govern federal advisory committees would have made it difficult for the group to transition into a formal Biden administration task force, Emanuel said, meaning the group’s discontinuation didn’t come as a surprise.

Emanuel said the topics of discussion would remain largely the same, listing vaccine distribution, diagnostic testing, how to respond to new and highly transmissible coronavirus variants, and protective gear for medical workers, among others.

Emanuel added that the rules about federal advisory committees would likely mean the group will proceed without its three co-chairs: Marcella Nunez-Smith, the Yale researcher serving as Biden’s top health equity adviser; Vivek Murthy, Biden’s nominee to serve (again) as surgeon general; and David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner, who will serve as a top scientific adviser in Biden’s pandemic response.

The other task force members are: UCSF professor Robert Rodriguez, former global AIDS coordinator Eric Goosby, former assistant FDA commissioner Luciana Borio, former federal pandemic-response official Rick Bright, former Chicago health commissioner Julie Morita, researcher Michael Osterholm, Global Health Council director Loyce Pace, author and surgeon Atul Gawande, nurse and mental health expert Jane Hopkins, Navajo Nation health official Jill Kim, epidemiologist David Michaels, and the physician and NYU professor Celine Gounder.

It is not immediately clear which of the group’s members will continue participating. A White House spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

But Gounder said she would continue to participate enthusiastically, and echoed Emanuel’s high praise. In a text message, she called the group’s members “mission-driven” and said their skill sets complement one another.

“It’s really fun,” she said. “Everyone on the board was invited to participate.”

The group’s dissolution, however, won’t leave Biden any shortage of health experts. The president has already announced a broad slate of officials who will lead his health department and pandemic response, including Jeffrey Zients, who will serve as his Covid-19 coordinator, and Bechara Choucair, who will oversee the administration’s vaccine effort. Biden has already installed Rochelle Walensky as the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and appointed the federal researcher Anthony Fauci as his chief medical adviser on coronavirus issues.

STAT also reported Wednesday that Biden has already moved to fill several key posts at the Department of Health and Human Services and in the White House’s budget office. Wednesday, he tapped longtime D.C. figures Topher Spiro and Sarah Despres as key health aides. The administration also hired Sean McCluskie, a longtime aide to health secretary nominee Xavier Becerra, to serve as HHS chief of staff.

Source: STAT