Biden announces 13-member Covid-19 task force, urges Americans to wear masks as cases soar

Defeating the pandemic is Biden's top priority. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President-elect Joe Biden on Monday (Nov 9) made an urgent plea for Americans to wear masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus, declaring that "a mask is not a political statement" as he vowed to make defeating the pandemic his No. 1 priority when he replaces President Donald Trump on Jan 20.

"It doesn't matter who you voted for, where you stood before Election Day," Mr Biden said in short remarks in Delaware after meeting with members of a newly formed Covid-19 advisory board.

"It doesn't matter your party, your point of view. We can save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months."

He added: "Not Democratic or Republican lives - American lives."

The magnitude of his task became starkly clear on Sunday as the nation surpassed 10 million cases and sank deeper into the grip of what could become the worst chapter yet of the pandemic.

In his remarks, the president-elect said the grim statistics suggested that the country was "facing a very dark winter" ahead.

"Infection rates are going up. Hospitalisations are going up. Deaths are going up," Mr Biden said after listening to his advisers, who called into the meeting remotely.

Drugmaker Pfizer announced on Monday that an early analysis of its coronavirus vaccine trial suggested the vaccine was robustly effective in preventing Covid-19, a promising development as the world has waited anxiously for any positive news about a pandemic that has killed more than 1.2 million people.

Mr Biden called the development "excellent news" in a statement but cautioned that Americans would need to rely on basic precautions in order to "get back to normal as fast as possible."

He said Americans would not be wearing masks forever but should do so until the vaccine is readily available.

"It's clear that this vaccine, even if approved, will not be widely available for many months yet to come," he said. "The challenge before us right now is still immense and growing."

Mr Biden's comments about masks were a striking contrast with Mr Trump, who has spent the last eight months dismissing or playing down the need for Americans to wear masks, saying frequently - and falsely - that there was deep disagreement about whether masks were effective.

As cases surge in over half of the country, the nation's worsening outlook comes at an extremely difficult juncture: Mr Trump, who remains in office until January, is openly at odds with his own coronavirus advisers - including about mask-wearing - and winter, when infections are only expected to spread faster, is coming.

Mr Biden named Dr Rick Bright, a former top vaccine official in the Trump administration who submitted a whistleblower complaint to Congress, as a member of the Covid-19 task force advising him during the transition, officials announced on Monday morning.

Dr Bright, who was ousted as the head of a federal medical research agency, told lawmakers that officials in the government had failed to heed his warnings about acquiring masks and other supplies, and that the failure to act may have cost American lives.

Mr Biden had already revealed the three co-chairs of the panel:

- Dr Vivek Murthy, a surgeon general under former President Barack Obama, who has been a key Biden adviser for months and is expected to take a major public role;

- Mr David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration for former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton;

- Dr Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor of public health at Yale University.

The 13-member panel will also include:

- Dr Zeke Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and brother of Rahm Emanuel, an Obama administration adviser;

- Dr Luciana Borio, a vice-president at In-Q-Tel;

- Dr Atul Gawande, a professor of surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital;

- Dr Celine Gounder, a clinical assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine;

- Dr Julie Morita, executive vice-president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation;

- Dr Michael Osterholm, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota;

- Loyce Pace, executive director and president of Global Health Council;

- Dr Robert Rodriguez and Dr Eric Goosby, both professors at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.