As Pandemic Worsens, Biden Unveils Ambitious COVID-19 Strategy

Healthcare workers attend to a patient at the Covid-19 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Hospital Del Mar in Barcelona on January 20, 2021. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

 

Joe Biden’s administration unveiled a detailed COVID-19 roadmap Thursday to boost vaccinations and testing while centering scientific expertise, after the new US president warned during his inaugural speech the pandemic was entering its “deadliest period.” 

Officials said Biden would immediately sign 10 executive orders and other directives to jumpstart the national strategy, which experts said was sorely missing under his predecessor Donald Trump.

The US is the world’s hardest-hit country with more than 405,000 deaths, and government models suggest the B.1.1.7 variant imported from Britain could supercharge the outbreak’s trajectory in the coming months.

“For almost a year now, Americans could not look to the federal government for any strategy, let alone a comprehensive approach to respond to Covid,” Jeff Zients, a former management consultant who is Biden’s new Covid-19 task force coordinator, told reporters.

“As president Biden steps into office today, that all changes,” he added.

Biden’s presidency will initially be shaped by his response to Covid-19 and the associated economic emergency.

Whereas Trump seldom acknowledged the tragic toll the virus was inflicting on Americans, Biden paused in his inaugural address — which the public was essentially barred from attending due to the pandemic — to offer a moment’s silent prayer for its victims.

– ‘Restoring trust’ –
The plan has organized goals like restoring the trust of the American people, surging the vaccination campaign, and mitigating viral spread through aggressive masking and testing, while expanding the public health workforce.

It also seeks to expand emergency relief and invoke emergency legislation to increase industrial production; safely reopen schools, businesses and travel; protect the most vulnerable and advance racial equity; and restore US global leadership with future pandemic preparedness.

The administration is seeking $1.9 trillion from Congress for its plans, which includes $20 billion for vaccines and $50 billion for testing.

Taken as a whole, the strategy amounts to a more closely coordinated approach than that of the previous administration, which sidelined key agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sought to censor recommendations by prominent scientists, and said individual states should do what seems right for them.

Some of the measures were already announced in recent days, including recommending that the eligibility criteria for vaccine priority groups be widened and simplified in order to increase the rate of shots being injected.

As it stands, the federal government has overseen the allocation of 35.9 million doses to states, of which 16.5 million have been used — or 46 percent.

The figure is well below targets set by the Trump administration, but the administration rate has been steadily ticking up in recent days.

– Vaccine blitz –
New White House vaccines coordinator Bechara Choucair restated the administration’s intention to bring online thousands of federal vaccination centers as well as the mobilization of thousands more workers to help.

These plans would bring the financial and logistical clout of the federal government in the fight against the virus — again, an element that had largely been missing.

The administration will also continue the policy of rolling out vaccine doses for Pfizer and Moderna’s two-shot regimes as soon as they become available.

The Trump team had initially set aside the booster as reserve, but later changed course after running low on supply.

Executive orders would also be advanced to establish a pandemic testing board, to boost research efforts into treatments, and create a Health Equity Task Force.

This group, headed by Yale associate professor Marcella Nunez-Smith, will advise the president on allocating resources and funding in communities affected by inequities linked to race, geography and disability.

The administration also plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to boost supply of personal protective equipment, lab equipment and to maximize vaccine production.

Tim Manning, who will coordinate supply chain issues, told reporters he had identified 12 supply shortfalls where the law could be invoked.

Biden’s team has relentlessly criticized the Trump administration in recent weeks over its failure in particular to adequately plan for the last mile of its Covid response and get vaccines developed at record speed into arms.

An early test will be whether they achieve their own goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans within Biden’s first 100 days in office, by April 20.

UK Approves Use Of Astrazeneca-Oxford COVID-19 Vaccine

In this file photo taken on December 8, 2020 a member of staff draws the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine out of a phial at the Southmead Hospital, Briston. The US Food and Drug Adminstration on December 11, 2020 granted the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine an emergency use authorization, paving the way for its imminent rollout across the country.
Graeme Robertson / AFP / POOL

 

Britain on Wednesday became the first nation to approve the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, as Germany logged its highest daily death toll with the pandemic surging worldwide.

Fears have also grown following the detection in Britain of a new strain of the virus experts suspect is more contagious, and the variant has been found in a number of other countries, including the United States and India.

A year after the World Health Organization first mentioned a pneumonia in China later identified as Covid-19, the virus has killed more than 1.79 million, devastated the global economy and driven the race for a vaccine to halt the pandemic.

International efforts helped develop vaccines in record time, and following Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the AstraZeneca-Oxford candidate became the third to win approval in the Western world.

“We will now move to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible,” tweeted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the one from AstraZeneca and Oxford does not need to be stored at very low temperatures.

It can be kept, transported and handled at normal refrigerated conditions, making it easier and cheaper to administer, which is particularly important for less wealthy nations.

It is unlikely to get approval from the European Union until at least a month however.

Noel Walthion, deputy executive director of the European Medicines Agency told Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad newspaper that a possible approval in January was “unlikely,” an agency statement confirmed.

Russian, Chinese vaccines

Russia and China also claim to have developed Covid-19 vaccines, and have already started administering them.

Chinese pharma giant Sinopharm on Tuesday said Phase 3 trials of its candidate had shown 79-percent effectiveness, short of the more than 90 percent achieved by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The firm has applied to China’s drug regulator for approval.

But Beijing has struggled to gain international trust for its vaccines, hindered by a lack of data transparency as well as criticism over its handling of the initial outbreak of the virus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and its attempts to silence whistleblowers.

The number of infections in that city may have been 10 times higher than official figures suggest, according to a study by China’s Centre for Disease Control.

A leading scientist also criticised the French government for the slow roll-out of its vaccination programme.

France’s strategy “is not suited to a situation that is so dangerous,” said Axel Kahn, a prominent geneticist who leads the National League against Cancer.

New variant worries

Even as vaccinations ramp up in Europe and North America, global infections have surged to 82 million, with nearly 1.8 million deaths.

Germany, which had handled the first coronavirus wave relatively well, has been hit hard by the second. It logged more than 1,000 daily deaths for the first time, authorities said Wednesday.

Germany is under a partial lockdown, with most shops closed along with schools, restaurants, cultural and leisure facilities.

But with Chancellor Angela Merkel due to meet senior politicians to discuss the situation next Tuesday, some are already pressing to extend the existing lockdown beyond the current January 10 end-date.

Health Minister Jens Spahn told German broadcaster ARD the country was “nowhere near where we need to be” and “there will undoubtedly be measures” after January 10.

With England registering record daily figures for infections after the discovery of a new variant of the virus that experts believe could be more contagious, that same variant is now turning up in other countries.

Indian authorities were trying Wednesday to track down tens of thousands of recent arrivals from Britain as cases of the new variant more than doubled in 24 hours.

Health workers in the United States and Latin America detected it on Tuesday for the first time.

The EU health agency has warned the strain carries a high risk for more hospitalisations and deaths — not because the infections are more severe but because it spreads more easily.

‘Greatest operational challenge’

In the United States — the worst-hit nation in the world — President-elect Joe Biden called mass vaccination “the greatest operational challenge we’ve ever faced as a nation”.

The Trump administration had said that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of December, but so far just over two million have received the first shot of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden, who takes over from Donald Trump on January 20, renewed his promise to administer 100 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office, and confirmed he would invoke a Korean War-era law to force private industry to step up production.

“The Trump administration’s plan to distribute vaccines is falling far behind,” Biden said.

“I’m going to move Heaven and Earth to get us going in the right direction.”

But he warned: “The next few weeks and months are going to be very tough — a very tough period for our nation, maybe the toughest during this entire pandemic.”

US President-Elect Biden Receives COVID-19 Vaccine On Live TV

President-elect Joe Biden (L) receives a COVID-19 Vaccination from nurse practitioner Tabe Masa at ChristianaCare Christiana Hospital on December 21, 2020 in Newark, Delaware. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images/AFP

 

US President-elect Joe Biden received a Covid-19 vaccine live on television Monday in a campaign to boost Americans’ confidence in the jabs.

The 78-year-old incoming president got the Pfizer vaccine at the Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware. His wife Jill received the shot earlier, the presidential transition team said.

Biden told Americans “there’s nothing to worry about” when they get vaccinated and that in the meantime they should keep wearing masks and “listen to the experts.”

READ ALSO: EU Approves First Coronavirus Vaccine

They were the latest high-profile political figures publicly joining the first wave of vaccinations aimed at stopping a pandemic that has killed almost 318,000 Americans.

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife got vaccinations last week but President Donald Trump has yet to take part in the drive.

The Republican leader — who has become consumed by pushing conspiracy theories that his election loss to Biden was the result of mass fraud — cites the natural immunity he is believed to already have after recovering from a bout of coronavirus.

However, he has done little, even in terms of issuing statements, to support the campaign to overcome Americans’ vaccine skepticism. His wife, Melania Trump, has also been largely absent from the issue.

For Biden, who will be the oldest president ever to take office on January 20, this was the first shot in the two-stage Pfizer vaccine. He said he was “looking forward” to the follow-up.

Biden praised “the scientists and the people who put this together — frontline workers, people who were the ones who actually did the clinical work.”

He called medical workers “amazing and incredible.”

Biden also had some rare praise for the Trump administration, which he said “deserves some credit” for overseeing record-speedy development and production of vaccines.

But Biden, who spoke through a double mask, cautioned that there was still a long way to go before the inoculations can really halt the virus’ spread.

“It’s worth stating that, you know, this is just the beginning,” he said. “It’s going to take time.”

“In the meantime,” he said, “I hope people listen to all the experts… talking about the need to wear masks” during the holidays.

“If you don’t have to travel, don’t travel. It’s really important.”

AFP