This week marked the beginning of a new era in U.S. politics with the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
In his inauguration speech, President Biden made it clear that confronting COVID-19 is a priority of his administration, stating, “We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”
So, what now? Here’s what to expect in the early days of the Biden administration—including the COVID-19 response, Cabinet nominations, and other actions on health care, climate, and the economy.
President Biden has taken several actions to ensure stable leadership across federal agencies and a coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While key nominees have yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the Biden administration has named and placed the acting agency leadership across federal government, including at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where Norris Cochran—a veteran of HHS as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—is currently the acting secretary. Additionally, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. David Kessler—who served in the post under both President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton—is co-chair of the President’s COVID-19 Advisory Board. Kessler will work out of HHS and ensure effective distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, former Harvard Medical School professor and chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, is director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Key nominees awaiting confirmation include:
- California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS)
- Dr. Vivek Murthy for surgeon general, a post he held during the Obama administration
- Tom Vilsack for secretary of Agriculture, a post he held during the Obama administration
(READ: Nearly 130 food and agriculture groups, including BIO, call for the immediate confirmation of Tom Vilsack.)
Beyond positions that require Senate confirmation, President Biden named Jeff Zients as a counselor to the president and coordinator of the COVID-19 response. A business executive and management consultant, Zients worked with President Obama to fix the rollout of Healthcare.gov in 2013.
The $1.9 trillion question: President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan is awaiting Congressional approval. Called the American Rescue Plan, it includes provisions to boost federal unemployment assistance, create a new grant for small business owners, increase assistance to states and schools, and send $1,400 stimulus checks to most Americans. The bill would also invest $20 billion in a national COVID-19 vaccination program and $50 billion to increase COVID-19 testing nationwide.
New POTUS, New Executive Orders
Among his first actions, President Biden signed several executive orders.
Organizing and Mobilizing the United States Government to Provide a Unified and Effective Response to Combat COVID-19 and to Provide United States Leadership on Global Health and Security will coordinate the federal government’s efforts to distribute personal protective equipment, vaccines, and testing. In addition, this order says that the United States will remain a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) and join the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility and Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, efforts to ensure countries in need have access to COVID-19 vaccines. (BIO welcomed this announcement.)
Another order will enforce mask-wearing by all federal employees and contractors while they are in federal government buildings and on federal lands.
Biden also signed orders regarding climate change, advancing racial equity, and preventing discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
Zeroing in on climate
With the executive order addressing climate change, the administration announced an Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases to better understand the effects of carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane on human health, the agricultural sector, ecosystem services, and property damage that stems from natural disasters. Additionally, the United States rejoined the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. According to reports, President Biden will sign an executive order next week to elevate the issue in both domestic and national security policy, and reestablish the Presidential Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
The Biden administration is also expected to invest in technologies to tackle climate change, including renewable energy and carbon capture, as Good Day BIO has reported. Likewise, with Democrats in control of Congress, there could be an opportunity to pass a national low-carbon fuel standard, “a cornerstone” of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis action plan.
The first 100 days and beyond
According to Jeanne Haggerty, BIO’s EVP for Advocacy, expect “a slew of executive orders in the first few days,” including more on the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration, criminal justice reform, and climate change. The Biden administration has a “pretty ambitious” 100-day plan, she added.
As for how Congress fits into the administration’s plans, Haggerty said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is likely to have a “dual track” to initially manage both the Senate impeachment trial of former President Trump while also pressing on with confirmation hearings for Biden’s nominees.
There are some uncertainties. The Biden administration has an ambitious agenda—but much of its productivity will depend on a Congress where Democrats narrowly hold control of the House and Senate.
Additionally, it remains unclear what is to come of the Most Favored Nation (MFN) prescription drug reimbursement index introduced by the Trump administration. As we’ve reported, BIO, the California Life Sciences Association (CLSA), and BIOCOM California challenged the proposal, and a federal judge granted an injunction effectively blocking it. Under the Biden administration, HHS could reissue the rule for comment and finalize it after receiving responses—but given the prioritization of responding to COVID-19, for now this issue seems to be on the backburner.