Biden convenes U.S. pandemic task force and hails vaccine progress

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – President-elect Joe Biden convened a task force on Monday to devise a blueprint for tackling the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and hailed progress on a vaccine, while President Donald Trump steadfastly refused to acknowledge his defeat.

Biden conferred in Delaware by video link with the 13-member task force that he named, headed by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler and Yale University healthcare equity expert Marcella Nunez-Smith.

Two days after clinching victory over the Republican president, the Democratic former vice president is set to give remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, about his plans to address the pandemic that has killed more than 237,000 Americans and to rebuild the economy.

Biden labeled as “great news” Pfizer Inc’s PFE.N announcement on Monday that its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective here. Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE BNTX.O are the first drugmakers to release successful data from a large-scale clinical trial of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

But Biden said it would be “many more months before there is widespread vaccination” in the United States and underscored the importance of wearing protective masks and social distancing.

“Americans will have to rely on masking, distancing, contact tracing, hand washing and other measures to keep themselves safe well into next year. Today’s news is great news, but it doesn’t change that fact,” Biden said in a statement.

Biden traveled from his home to the Queen Theater in Wilmington, where he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spoke to the task force experts. The United States has been registering record high infection numbers in recent days.

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“I will be informed by science and by experts,” Biden said in a statement before the meeting.

The task force will liaise with local and state officials to consider how to safely reopen schools and businesses and tackle racial disparities.

The Biden panel includes Rick Bright, a whistleblower who says he was removed from his Trump administration post for raising concerns about coronavirus preparedness, and Luciana Borio, who specializes in complex public health emergencies.

Biden during the campaign accused Trump of panicking and surrendering to the pandemic. Trump promoted unproven medicines, assailed public health experts, failed to signal empathy or compassion as the death toll mounted and disregarded advice on mask wearing and social distancing, ending up hospitalized in October receiving treatments for COVID-19.

Vice President Mike Pence is due to meet later on Monday with the White House coronavirus task force for the first time since October.

Biden cleared the threshold of 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency on Saturday, four days after the Nov. 3 election. He beat Trump by more than 4.3 million votes nationwide, with Trump becoming the first U.S. president since 1992 to lose a re-election bid.

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TRUMP DOES NOT BUDGE

Trump, who has often attacked the integrity of the U.S. voting process without offering evidence, has not accepted defeat and some of his allies have encouraged him to exhaust every recourse for hanging onto power. He has launched an array of lawsuits to press claims of election fraud for which he has produced no evidence. He plans to hold rallies to build support for his election challenge, campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.

Asked when Trump would concede or call Biden, Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller on Monday told Fox Business Network: “That word’s not even in our vocabulary now. We’re going to pursue all these legal means, all the recount methods.”

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A top priority set by Biden is expanding healthcare access and buttressing the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law known as Obamacare that has enabled millions of Americans to obtain medical insurance through expanded public programs and marketplaces for private policies.

A case to be argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday could change the parameters of his healthcare challenge.

The justices, with a 6-3 conservative majority, will mull whether to rule in favor of Trump and Republican-governed states including Texas seeking to invalidate the law even as the country struggles with a public health crisis.

Governments from around the world have congratulated Biden since Saturday, signaling they are turning the page.

Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies have said interfered in the 2016 election to support Trump and then sought to disparage Biden in this year’s race, said on Monday it would wait for the official results before commenting, noting Trump’s legal challenges. China was similarly cautious.

Biden’s advisers are moving ahead and considering candidates for key government posts. But the transition cannot shift into high gear until the U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees federal property, certifies the winner.

Emily Murphy, the Trump appointee who runs the agency, has not yet done so and a GSA spokeswoman gave no timetable for the decision. Until then, Biden’s team cannot enter federal agencies or access federal funds set aside for the transition.

Multimedia U.S. election coverage: here

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