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Biden names health care advisers who will inherit a worsening pandemic

Pandemic deaths nationwide have now reached 285,000, as hope builds for a new vaccine and as President-elect Joe Biden assembles a team to address the pandemic. White House Correspondent Yamiche Alcindor joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pandemic deaths nationwide have reached 285,000. That comes as hope is building for vaccines, and as president-elect Biden is assembling a team to oversee the effort.

    White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reports.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, another big step: Reviewers for the Food and Drug Administration found Pfizer's vaccine safe and 95 percent effective. That's clearing the way for its expected approval, possibly before the week is out.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're just days away from authorization from the FDA, and we're pushing them hard, at which point, we will immediately begin mass distribution. The gold standard vaccine has been done in less than nine months.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Pfizer and Moderna stayed away from a White House vaccine summit. It was there that President Trump signed an executive order prioritizing COVID vaccine doses for Americans over other countries.

    It is unclear whether that order has any legal force, and even the chief scientist leading the president's vaccine development and distribution said this when pressed for details about that order.

  • Moncef Slaoui:

    Frankly, I don't know. And, frankly, I'm staying out of this, so I can't comment.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    At the same time, Trump administration officials denied a New York Times report that they botched the chance to buy more of the vaccine months ago. The company warned it will most likely be midsummer before the U.S. can get more than the 100 million doses it already bought.

    Meanwhile, today, Britain, the first country to approve the Pfizer vaccine, began its inoculation campaign with 800,000 initial doses. Priority is going to the elderly and nursing home workers.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Ninety-year-old Margaret Keenan was the world's first recipient of the Pfizer vaccine outside of clinical trials. She encouraged others to follow suit.

  • Margaret Keenan:

    Go for it, because it's free and it's the best thing that's ever happened at the moment. So, do please go for it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A third candidate, behind Pfizer and Moderna, is showing promise. Findings released today showed a vaccine developed by drug-maker AstraZeneca and Oxford University is safe and 70 percent effective. More analysis must be done to gauge how well it works for older recipients, since only a small number of the trial's participants were over the age of 70.

    In Wilmington, Delaware, president-elect Biden, who will ultimately oversee distribution of most of the COVID vaccines in the U.S., formally unveiled the team that will help him.

    They include Xavier Becerra to be the next secretary of Health and Human Services and Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease expert, was tapped to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Anthony Fauci will be the president's chief medical adviser on COVID-19. He will also continue as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

  • President-Elect Joe Biden:

    This team will help get at least 100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in the first 100 days, 100 million shots in the first 100 days. And we will follow the guidance of science to get the vaccines to those most at risk.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Becerra currently serves as attorney general of California, where most of residents are now under new lockdowns.

  • Xavier Becerra:

    You have made it clear, Mr. President-Elect, that, to build back a prosperous America, we need a healthy America. That then will be job one for your team at HHS.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Dr. Murthy helped fight Ebola and the Zika virus as surgeon general during the Obama administration.

  • Vivek Murthy:

    While this is a daunting task, we absolutely have as a country what we need to overcome this virus. We have world-class scientists. We have courageous medical professionals who are risking their lives to care for the ill, we have companies that are on the cusp of delivering vaccines,

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Mr. Biden also appointed Jeff Zients to be the coordinator of his administration's COVID-19 response. Former White House and Pentagon senior adviser Natalie Quillian was tapped to be his deputy. And Yale medical professor Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith will chair the president's COVID-19 Equity Task Force.

    And, this afternoon,president-elect Biden announced he has chosen retired Attorney General Lloyd Austin and his nominee for secretary of defense. Austin would be the first Black American to hold that post.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This evening, the "NewsHour" can confirm that U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge, Democrat from Ohio, will be president-elect Biden's nominee to be the secretary of housing and urban development.

    So, we turn again to Yamiche, who has just been reporting.

    Yamiche, what more do we know at this hour about the White House's efforts on the vaccine front, what they're pushing to do?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president took today to really take a victory lap and brag about the fact that he was able, he says, to oversee this really speedy vaccine distribution and development.

    He wanted to make the case that, even though he is in the waning days of his presidency, that he is someone who was doubted and that people should really give him credit.

    What we know also is that he signed this executive order. It's supposed to be about putting Americans first, with the idea of Americans being prioritized over countries. Trump administration officials also tell me that there is also some part of this executive order that also means that the U.S. will be helping other countries that are vulnerable populations, possibly developing countries.

    The thing that's interesting here, though, is that the president was continuing to also talk about the fact that he doesn't know which administration is going to be next. He was specifically questioned about the idea that the Trump administration didn't invite the Biden transition team to this vaccine summit.

    And he said, well, we don't know which administration is going to be next.

    Of course, Judy, we do know. President-elect Biden is the projected winner. He is going to be coming into office on January 20. But even with the president talking about the vaccine, he was still layering in the false claims that the election was stolen from him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what about president-elect Biden?

    We know, Yamiche, he's going to be presiding over the majority of the distribution of this vaccine. What do we know about his plans for that and for managing the pandemic overall?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, president-elect Joe Biden wanted to use today to really showcase the expertise and the people who will be helping him carry out his COVID-19 response and, of course, distributing the vaccine.

    He talked a lot about the fact that he's going to tell Americans the truth. That, of course, is in contrast with President Trump, who has at times downplayed the virus at times, even comparing it to the flu, which, of course, it is not.

    He also talked a lot about equity, saying that he was going to center that, center the idea that vulnerable populations, African Americans, Latinos, who we see as most impacted by the virus, that they are going to be put on the top of his list in terms of priorities.

    We also saw a number of his picks talk about their backgrounds as children of immigrants. And we saw Joe Biden talk specifically about three things. He said everyone's going to be wearing a mask, and he wants everyone to wear masks in the first 100 days of his administration.

    He also said that there should be 100 million vaccines getting into the arms of Americans. And he also said you he wants to open the majority of schools in America in his first 100 days, if Congress should act.

    So, he was laying out some new policies, while also talking about equity and racial discrimination.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambitious plans.

    Separate development, Yamiche. And that is, we reported that the "NewsHour" has confirmed — in fact, it's now been announced — that Joe Biden has selected retired Army General Lloyd Austin to be the next secretary of defense.

    Tell us what more you have learned about him and about that choice.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, first of all, this choice is a historic choice. General Austin would be the first African American secretary of defense, if he is confirmed.

    That is going in line, transition officials tell me, with Joe Biden's commitment to try to have his Cabinet look like America.

    I want to walk you through a bit of what General Austin's background is, so we can put it up for folks. He served in the U.S. Army from 1975 to 2016. He was also vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 2012 to 2013. He was the first Black commander of U.S. Central Command from 2013 to 2016.

    Now, add to General Austin — and people say that he is qualified for this job. Add Marcia Fudge to the mix, and you have there more African Americans filling out the Cabinet picks of president-elect Biden. This comes after civil rights groups and the Congressional Black Caucus wanted him to have a more diverse Cabinet, especially when it came to the top positions in his administration.

    So, this secretary of defense pick is seen as part of that.

    I should say that people that are fans of the general, of General Austin, they say he should not be seen as someone who was picked because he was African American, but, rather, that he is someone who is an example of the contributions of African Americans to the military.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we have a little more reporting to come later on the program from our Nick Schifrin.

    But, Yamiche, for now, thank you very much.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks so much.

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