WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden has turned to three prominent physicians to lead his coronavirus task force who have collectively signaled that they will approach the pandemic far differently than the Trump administration, which they have criticized for mixing politics with science.
A top Biden aide on Sunday announced the two co-chairs of the incoming administration’s task force: Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. surgeon general, and David Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Though the Biden campaign did not formally announce her inclusion on Sunday, Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale physician and professor whose research focuses on health disparities, is widely expected to serve as the task force’s third co-chair.
Both Murthy and Kessler are widely known in public health and science for their stints in different presidential administrations. Kessler was appointed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, and served into the second term of President Clinton. He left the agency in 1997 to become the dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Murthy, himself a Yale medical school graduate, was appointed U.S. surgeon general under President Obama in 2014.
Murthy and Kessler were outspoken during the 2020 campaign about the need for the FDA to avoid the perception of political interference in evaluating and approving a Covid-19 vaccine.
Murthy delivered an impassioned prime-time address during the Democratic National Convention in August that assailed officials in the current administration, ranging from former health secretary Tom Price to the president himself.
“What we’re missing is leadership,” he said then. “We need a leader who works with states to ensure that everyone who needs a test gets one, and gets results quickly. A leader who secures a safe, effective vaccine and distributes it quickly and fairly. A leader who inspires us to practice distancing and wear masks — not as a political statement but as a patriotic duty.”
President Trump’s rhetoric regarding the FDA became a campaign issue in the race’s final months, when he openly alluded to seeking a vaccine approval by Election Day and, separately, pledged that one would come by the end of 2020.
Kessler, who served both Republican and Democratic administrations, typically shies away from political controversy. But in an interview with STAT in August, he made clear his disdain for political interference in public health, particularly when it comes to a potential Covid-19 vaccine approval.
“If the decision is viewed as political, that will set back public health because it will undermine people’s confidence,” Kessler said.
Kate Bedingfield, the Biden deputy campaign manager, announced the selection of Murthy and Kessler Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.’’ Biden, who promised a Covid-19 plan “built on bedrock science” during his victory address on Saturday night, is expected to formally announce the task force on Monday.
Nunez-Smith, another central figure in the Biden campaign’s Covid-19 efforts, is a well-known physician and researcher who has served in various advisory roles in Connecticut during the pandemic, including as a member of the state’s coronavirus reopening advisory group.
Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, she has worked for nearly two decades to address health equity issues both in patient care and in physician training. Biden aides first disclosed her advisory role with his campaign on Aug. 13, when she briefed then-candidates Biden and Kamala Harris on Covid-19 issues alongside Murthy, Kessler, and Nicole Lurie, another high-profile Biden adviser who served as the assistant health secretary for preparedness and response during the Obama administration.
Nunez-Smith is a repeated recipient of National Institutes of Health research funding, including for a first-of-its kind research collaboration across the Eastern Caribbean and a separate project exploring the potential for precision medicine interventions for individuals at risk for type 2 diabetes or hypertension.
In a virtual presentation to a New Haven, Conn., civic group in May, she warned of the Covid-19 pandemic’s outsize impact on people of color. She cited systemic disinvestment in communities, limited access to care, and economic inequalities that make work-from-home arrangements unfeasible as contributing factors.
“Whether we’re in Louisiana or in Chicago or here in New England, the same pattern repeats,” she said. “Black and brown communities have been disproportionately hit, devastatingly so.”
The trio’s selection as co-chairs was not a surprise. Throughout the pandemic, each has been a mainstay in Biden’s cadre of health advisers, which includes an array of physicians, researchers, and former high-ranking government health officials.
In a September interview, Murthy told STAT he viewed the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic as a holistic effort that requires rethinking many elements of the country’s health infrastructure.
“I think ending the pandemic will require us to deal with some of the gaping holes in our health care and public health system that have been highlighted by Covid-19,” he said.
Murthy’s nomination as surgeon general received wide support from public health groups. But gun-rights advocates in the Senate nearly derailed his confirmation amid resistance from the National Rifle Association and scrutiny over his previous declaration that he viewed gun violence as a public health threat.
Before he joined the Obama administration, Murthy founded the advocacy group Doctors for America in 2008, and also is a co-founder of the company known as TrialNetworks, a technology company that provides data and logistical support for biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the process of developing new drugs.
In 2016, he released a first-of-its-kind report on the nationwide addiction crisis, which focused in particular on opioids and alcohol. In 2017, the Trump administration relieved Murthy of his duties as surgeon general — soon after, he spoke out forcefully against then-health secretary Price’s controversial statements regarding medication-assisted treatment, seen as the standard of care for people with opioid addiction.
During the campaign, Biden advisers told STAT they were drafting plans for a slate of executive orders and federal guidance on Covid-19 that could land as soon as Inauguration Day. In the hours after he’s inaugurated, his advisers said, the Senate could move to quickly confirm top health care officials — and the federal government could launch aggressive new messaging campaigns on vaccines, mask use, and social distancing. Biden has pledged to dramatically ramp up testing efforts, restore a biodefense official to the National Security Council, and improve Covid-19 surveillance by revamping insurance claims data.
This story has been updated to include Marcella Nunez-Smith as the task force’s third co-chair.