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Biden's Day One challenge: Trust in science

The American public's divided trust in science is a foundational crisis that Joe Biden will have to address in order to tackle the other crises awaiting him on Day 1, including a raging pandemic and climate change.

Why it matters: Partisan divides, eroded confidence and an exodus of experts from the federal government could hinder responses to both COVID-19 and climate change.


Repairing institutions and expanding public trust in vaccines “will have to be a very active project by Biden,” says Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • The percentage of Americans willing to take a potential COVID-19 vaccine dropped from 66% last summer to 50% in September, but it's grown again since then, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday.
  • 4 in 10 people still said they wouldn't take a vaccine, citing safety concerns and worries that the process was rushed.

Distrust of a potential coronavirus vaccine is even higher in some Black communities. Black Americans are among those who have been historically underrepresented in clinical trials and sometimes experimented on in the past, and they are now disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

  • The Biden administration has "an opportunity to set the tone for inclusivity about who is a voice in science," says Namandjé Bumpus, professor and chair of the pharmacology department at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
  • She says involving Black scientists in the science and public health process could go a long way in establishing trust in communities and in making gains against the pandemic and with science more broadly.

Across government agencies, 1,600 federal scientists left their positions during the first half of the Trump administration, many of them at the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies with roles in addressing climate change.

  • 40% of high-level EPA positions remain vacant.
  • The Biden administration will have to try to bring experts back and give scientists a bigger role at the most senior levels of government, says Neal Lane, a former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation who is now at Rice University'sBaker Institute.
  • Lane also says Biden should reverse a recent Trump executive order making it easier to fire some civil servants.

The big picture: China's scientific prowess is growing, and several experts told Axios that competition from Beijing requires immediate attention from the next administration.

  • Biden has proposed $300 billion in federal R&D funding for science and technology over four years. It would "get the country started on the right foot," Lane says, "but it's not enough to deal with the rapidly increasing threat to the position of the U.S. in the world."
  • What to watch: The extent to which theBiden administration tries to restore scientific cooperation with China, including staffing up the CDC's Beijing office, which was cut under the Trump administration, and engaging with China via the World Health Organization.

Go deeper: Memo for President Biden (Neal Lane and Roger Pielke — Nature)

Expert says COVID vaccine likely won't be available in Africa until Q2 of 2021

Africa may have to wait until the second quarter of 2021 to roll out vaccines, Africa CDC director John Nkengasong said Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

Why it matters: “I have seen how Africa is neglected when drugs are available,” Nkengasong said.

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The big picture: Just as it has exacerbated inequality in every other facet of American life, the coronavirus pandemic is deepening inequities in the business world, with the biggest and most powerful companies rapidly outpacing the smaller players.

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Coronavirus cases rose 10% in the week before Thanksgiving

Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

The daily rate of new coronavirus infections rose by about 10 percent in the final week before Thanksgiving, continuing a dismal trend that may get even worse in the weeks to come.

Why it matters: Travel and large holiday celebrations are most dangerous in places where the virus is spreading widely — and right now, that includes the entire U.S.

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Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that restrictions imposed on New York places of worship by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) during the coronavirus pandemic violated the First Amendment, per Bloomberg.

Why it matters: The decision in a 5-4 vote heralds one of the first significant actions by the new President Trump-appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

Editor's note: This a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

Trump agency head who often skips mask tests positive for coronavirus

The acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development informed senior staff Wednesday he has tested positive for coronavirus, two sources familiar with the call tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Barsa, who staffers say rarely wears a mask in their office, is the latest in a series of top administration officials to contract the virus. His positive diagnosis comes amid broader turmoil at the agency following the election.

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COVID-19 shows a bright future for vaccines

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.

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Beware a Thanksgiving mirage

Don't be surprised if COVID metrics plunge over the next few days, only to spike next week.

Why it matters: The COVID Tracking Project warns of a "double-weekend pattern" on Thanksgiving — where the usual weekend backlog of data is tacked on to a holiday.

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Trump pardons Michael Flynn

President Trump on Wednesday pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts.

Why it matters: It is the first of multiple pardons expected in the coming weeks, as Axios scooped last night.

This is a breaking story and will be updated with more details.

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