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Biden Names His Picks For Key Players On His Pandemic Advisory Team

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month, one of his first priorities will be responding to the pandemic. And today, he named his picks for key players who will advise him on how to contain it and how to get people vaccinated. His picks include some very familiar faces and some new faces, too. Joining us now from Wilmington, Del., to talk about all of this is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So let's just start off with perhaps the most familiar face on this team, Dr. Anthony Fauci. What exactly will his role be when Biden becomes president?

KEITH: Dr. Fauci will continue to lead the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where he's been involved in vaccine development. And he will also be an adviser to the president - the president-elect now - on COVID-19. He said on CNN that he thought his role would be similar, though what he didn't say is that Biden is a lot more likely to listen to him on a regular basis than President Trump has been, certainly of late. Fauci will bring continuity between the administrations, and he knows all the new players, including Biden's pick for the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, as well as his pick for surgeon general, Vivek Murthy. Here's what he said on CNN today.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: I know both Rochelle Walensky and Vivek Murthy very well. I mean, I've been working with Vivek for years when he was the surgeon general during the Obama administration. And Rochelle Walensky has been a colleague of mine. She's an infectious disease expert from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

KEITH: Now, the CDC director job doesn't require Senate confirmation, but surgeon general will. And Murthy had a difficult time getting confirmed last time because of his work on gun safety issues.

CHANG: Right. OK. There's another doctor on this list, Marcella Nunez-Smith of Yale School of Medicine. What is her role going to be?

KEITH: She's going to lead something that Biden is creating called the COVID-19 Equity Task Force. As we all know by now, the burden of COVID-19 has been disproportionately felt by people of color. And Nunez-Smith is the founding director of Yale's Equity Research and Innovation Center. She's been working on this issue extensively and building trust in communities that don't necessarily trust the medical community or vaccines.

CHANG: OK. Let's turn now to the pick for Health and Human Services secretary. The person who will be getting that job is State Attorney General of California Xavier Becerra. He's also a former congressman. Why do you think Becerra was selected for this particular job?

KEITH: You know, he's been actively involved in defending the Affordable Care Act, leading a coalition of states fighting to save it all the way to the Supreme Court. He spoke about that effort last year on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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XAVIER BECERRA: Americans are fed up with uncertainty when it comes to whether or not they can send their child to a doctor or the hospital. We deserve to have certainty. Health care is not some widget that you play with. It's life and death.

KEITH: But beyond that, while attorney general in California, he went after a major hospital system in the state for anti-competitive practices. He backed legislation aimed at preventing drug companies from keeping generic drugs off the market. And the thought is that he may be able to bring some of that experience and energy to bringing down health care costs.

He would also be the first Latino to lead the department. He grew up in Sacramento with working-class immigrant parents. He got into Stanford, according to his official bio, after fishing an application out of the trash that his friend had thrown away. His personal story is something that you can expect to see Biden and his team highlight, especially since Biden's been under pressure to make good on his promise to have a diverse Cabinet.

CHANG: Right. Lastly, there is a White House position. Jeff Zients will be the coordinator of the pandemic response. He's also going to be a counselor to the president. There has been some pushback - right? - to this particular selection from progressives.

KEITH: Right. He was a top economic official in the Obama White House. He famously was brought in to help after that disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov and save the launch of the Affordable Care Act. There has been pushback, as you say, from progressives to his appointment. He comes from the business world. Since leaving government, he led an investment firm, and he also served on the Facebook board of directors for a time. The reality, though, is that this doesn't require Senate confirmation, and even those who object to some of his connections concede he is good at managing systems and solving problems in a crisis.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

Thank you, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.