with Alexandra Ellerbeck

If Joe Biden wins next week’s election, he could become president amid the largest vaccine distribution campaign in U.S. history.

But a changing of the guard doesn’t necessarily have to disrupt the crucial “Operation Warp Speed” effort, experts and officials say.

“I think it’s looking pretty solid, so I’m not too worried about discontinuity or missing a beat with a new administration,” Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told me.

The initiative’s chief operating officer similarly said the election shouldn’t affect the vaccine effort.

“I see nothing that would cause us to stop doing what we’re doing, no matter the results of the election,” Gen. Gustave Perna said at a Heritage Foundation event this week. “We got our heads down and driving the sleigh, and we are going to execute our mission as directed.”

But as president, Biden would face some tough questions in taking over Operation Warp Speed.

The initiative aims to deliver 300 million doses of coronavirus vaccine to Americans starting early next year. A coronavirus vaccine has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but the Trump administration’s unprecedented effort has won praise even from skeptics who otherwise slam its response to the pandemic.

Paul Ostrowski, Operation Warp Speed’s director for supply, production and distribution, said yesterday they are “absolutely” on track to achieve the goal of having tens of millions of vaccine doses ready in December.

“We are actually going to exceed that expectation,” Ostrowski told CBS News. "We will have vaccines, we anticipate, prior to the turn of the new year.”

Biden is under pressure from some Democratic quarters to fire the head of the project, Moncef Slaoui, who was appointed by Trump in May.

Slaoui, who came from a venture capital firm investing in biotech companies, has held millions in stock on companies that are working to develop coronavirus vaccines. By working as a volunteer outside contractor for pay of just $1, Slaoui has been able to maintain personal investments and avoid making ethics disclosures.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other lawmakers have seized on the unusual situation, asking the consulting company that employs Slaoui to explain its role in his contract with the federal government. Warren has also said Slaoui should be the “first person to be fired.”

A Biden spokesman wouldn’t say yesterday whether the Democratic nominee would keep Slaoui in place.

Campaign spokesman Andrew Bates didn’t respond to a question about Biden’s plans on that front, instead providing a generic statement about how Biden will “empower scientific professionals” if elected.

“Why would anyone believe that the Trump Administration could competently execute on developing and distributing a vaccine to hundreds of millions of Americans?” Bates wrote in an email.

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will provide the leadership that has been lacking under Trump to empower scientific professionals throughout our government — including those involved in Warp Speed — to ensure that a safe and effective vaccine is distributed equitably, efficiently, and free to all Americans,” he added.

Biden's campaign website criticizes Operation Warp Speed, saying the initiative "lacks sound leadership, global vision, or a strategy for securing the necessary funding to see this mission through or secure trust from Americans who depend on its success.”

But Operation Warp Speed has already inked more than a dozen contracts. 

The next president won't be sworn in until the end of January. By that time – if all goes according to plan – McKesson could already be sending hundreds of millions of doses around the country, under the terms of its contract with the federal government to be the primary distributor.

Operation Warp Speed has also signed at least 14 other contracts with drugmakers who are working on developing various coronavirus vaccines, as well as medical device makers such as Corning, which makes glass vials to be used in distribution.

Topol said he believes Slaoui should be replaced because of his financial conflicts — and because it would be easy for a Biden administration to find an independent medical expert to run the operation. Still, it’s not at the top of his list of worries, he said.

“If they kept Moncef in there, they would do okay,” Topol said.

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: Medicare announced a plan to ensure that any early coronavirus vaccine is free.

“The heart of the multipart plan, shared by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is a proposed federal rule for covering vaccine charges on behalf of older Americans on Medicare. It also says that, in order to receive vaccine doses, which the government will pay for, private health plans will be forbidden from charging customers anything for administering them,” Amy Goldstein reports

“The plan, announced by CMS Administrator Seema Verma, is designed to provide the bureaucratic scaffolding underneath President Trump’s promise that a coronavirus vaccine will be available free,” Goldstein writes.

In a change from its current policy, Medicare will cover the costs for any vaccine authorized for emergency use. Although Congress mandated free vaccine coverage in March, it was unclear if Medicare would be able to cover drugs approved under emergency use designations.

The plan also states that during the health emergency residents on Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as people without health coverage, will be able to receive a vaccine without charge. It also sets up payment rules and hospital reimbursement rates ahead of time.

OOF: European and U.S. officials ordered new shutdowns as coronavirus cases surge.

France declared a new nationwide lockdown today starting Friday, as more than half of the nation’s ICU beds are taken up by covid-19 patients. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also announced a four-week shutdown of bars, restaurants and theaters, the Associated Press’s Todd Richmond and Frank Jordans report.

“After a devastatingly lethal spring, Europe seemed to have beaten back the virus over the summer. Its success was seen as a reproach to the United States and an example of what the U.S. could accomplish if Americans would just stop their political infighting and listen to the scientists,” Todd and Frank write. “But more than 2 million new confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported globally in the past week, the shortest time ever for such an increase, and 46% of those were in Europe.”

The United States, however, is experiencing its own surge in cases, and officials are considering new restrictions as hospitals in some areas of the country reach capacity. About 805 people are dying in the United States from the virus each day, compared to 714 two weeks ago.

“In the U.S., where practically every state is seeing a rise in cases, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers of hard-hit Wisconsin has been reduced to pleading with people to stay home, after an order he issued in the spring was overturned by the courts. Illinois’ governor banned indoor dining and drinking in Chicago this week. Other states are likewise considering reimposing restrictions,” Todd and Frank report.

The rise in cases appears to be driven by more people socializing indoors and disregard for public health measures. The CDC reported this week that while mask-wearing in the United States increased between the spring and summer, other mitigation measures, such as social distancing, had decreased or remained unchanged.

OUCH: Jared Kushner boasted that Trump wrested control of the pandemic response “back from the doctors.”

During an interview in April, the president's son-in-law described the guidelines for reopening the economy, saying Trump was “getting the country back from the doctors.” Kushner, who serves as a senior adviser to the president, also said that the country was moving quickly from the “panic phase” and “pain phase” of the pandemic to the “comeback phase.” In early April, more than 40,000 Americans had died of the virus, CNN's Michael Warren, Jamie Gangel and Elizabeth Stuart report.

The comments from Trump’s son-in-law appeared in an interview taped on April 18 with journalist Bob Woodward, who is an associate editor at The Washington Post. CNN reported that it obtained a recording of that interview, as well as a second interview from May 8.

“Kushner's comments reflect what many health experts say is at the heart of the administration's flawed approach to the pandemic — a premature push to reopen the country and sideline medical professionals that led to waves of new infections during the summer and record-setting cases this fall,” Michael, Jamie and Elizabeth write.

Kushner also laid out a political strategy in which the president would get credit for opening up the economy, but responsibility for testing and containing the virus would fall on governors.

“The federal government should not own the testing. And the federal government should not own kind of the rules. It's got to be up to the governors, because that's the way the federalist system works,” Kushner said. "But the President also is very smart politically with the way he did that fight with the governors to basically say, no, no, no, no, I own the opening. Because again, the opening is going to be very popular.”

At the White House

The White House chose not to trace and contain its coronavirus outbreak.

“There are long-standing protocols for investigating the spread of a virus: contact tracing, or interviewing infected people about their recent interactions and advising those exposed that they should get tested. There’s also a more cutting-edge technology that can map the spread of a virus by tracking tiny changes in its genetic code,” Desmond Butler, Tom Hamburger, Lena H. Sun and Sarah Kaplan report

“The Trump administration did not effectively deploy either technique in response to what Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, has called a ‘superspreader event’ at the White House, leaving not just the president and his family and staff at risk, but also the hundreds of people who were potentially exposed.”

Mark Fox, a county public health official in South Bend, Ind., told The Post that he contacted the White House for support with contact tracing after the University of Notre Dame’s president tested positive for the virus shortly after attending the Rose Garden ceremony. Fox has still not received a full list of people from his county who attended the event.

Trump has suggested that he may have contracted the virus from an event with families of U.S. military personnel killed abroad that took place the day after the Rose Garden event. Contact tracing and genetic sequencing of the virus could determine if this is true, or if the president and those in his orbit contracted the novel coronavirus at the Rose Garden ceremony or another event. It could also help determine whether the virus entered the orbit of the White House one time and continued to spread, or whether it entered multiple times.

“[But] officials say the White House called off early efforts to get to the bottom of the outbreak, including sequencing the genomes of virus samples from infected individuals,” Desmond, Tom, Lena and Sarah write. Without this measure or vigorous contact tracing, “it may never be known how widely the outbreak spread — or who was avoidably harmed.”

Tom Frieden, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director:

Election 2020

Trump and Biden are touting opposing coronavirus strategies in final days before the election.

“President Trump pushed ahead Wednesday with a strategy for the closing days of the campaign that minimizes the threat from the coronavirus pandemic, misstates his record in confronting it and mocks Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s caution in campaigning amid a disease that has killed more than 225,000 Americans,” Anne Gearan, Amy B Wang and John Wagner write.

Trump suggested negative headlines about the pandemic were a media conspiracy on Wednesday:

At a rally on Wednesday in Bullhead, Ariz., Trump said that the country was “rounding the turn.” While people standing behind Trump mostly wore masks, many in the larger crowd did not.

“Normal life will fully resume. That’s what we want, right? Normal life,” Trump said.

Biden has blamed Trump for underestimating the virus and has said that the administration has been reckless in its handling of the pandemic. The former vice president has tended to hold smaller rallies with strict rules for masks and social distancing.

“With five days to go before Election Day on Nov. 3, the two candidates have crystallized opposing messages on a pandemic that has affected most aspects of American life, including voting,” Anne, Amy and John write.

Polls suggest that Biden has an advantage among voters who are concerned about the virus. 

Democrats are hammering Tillis over his ties to Big Pharma in a tight Senate race in North Carolina.

“In a brutal series of attack ads, Democrats have painted incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, as a pro-pharma shill, even calling him ‘pharma’s favorite senator.’ They’ve highlighted his status as a leading recipient of drug industry campaign cash and his recent opposition to a GOP-backed drug pricing bill,” Stat News’s Lev Facher writes.

Tillis is running neck-and-neck against Democrat challenger Cal Cunningham, who has highlighted his opponent’s ties to the drug industry during debates. Tillis has accepted more money from major drug industry PACs than any senator besides Mitch McConnell, according to a Stat News analysis. While Tillis has touted his support for modest reforms on drug pricing, he has intervened to soften legislation that would make it harder for drug companies to maintain market exclusivity.

Health-care messaging, including campaigning on drug prices, has become a key part of Democrats’ electoral strategy, helping the party win back the House majority in 2018. 

“But in a ray of hope for Republicans, one recent survey showed Trump has an edge over his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, on a single health topic: drug prices,” Facher reports. “Trump, in fact, has made drug pricing initiatives central to his home-stretch campaign effort, despite accomplishing relatively little on the subject during his first term.”

Tune in

The Washington Post will talk with epidemiologist Christopher Golden, PhD, and field scientist Kendra Phelps, PhD, about where deadly viruses come from and how they spread through populations. The event is part of National Geographic’s new series on how scientists trace the origins of deadly diseases and try to prevent the next pandemic. Tune in tomorrow at 4:30 p.m.

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