Biden moves forward, USAID's turmoil, and vaccine hopes and fears: This week in development

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Acting USAID Administrator John Barsa delivers remarks to the media in the press briefing room at the U.S. Department of State in Washington. Photo by: Freddie Everett / State Department

Biden’s election signals a return to normalcy, USAID’s leadership turmoil, and hopes and fears about promising vaccine results. This week in development:

Joe Biden has been declared the next president of the United States, though President Donald Trump has yet to concede the election and is launching a swath of legal challenges alleging fraud and voting irregularities, none of which has so far been substantiated. Global development experts expect Biden’s victory could signal a return to normalcy for a community that has been repeatedly targeted for budget cuts, sidetracked by politics, and generally marginalized during four years of the Trump administration. Many expect Biden will immediately reverse a number of Trump-era policies, including by maintaining U.S. membership in the World Health Organization, resuming the country’s participation in the Paris Agreement, and repealing the Mexico City policy. Despite Trump’s refusal to concede, members of Biden’s team are moving forward with personnel announcements and planning processes in anticipation of taking office on Jan. 20. They are particularly focused on preparing to take the reins of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, Biden announced a 13-member COVID-19 task force, which will help shape his administration’s response to the resurging outbreak. The list includes some prominent global health leaders, including Eric Goosby, a former U.S. global AIDS coordinator, and Loyce Pace, executive director of Global Health Council. Biden also announced the appointment of two health advisers, Beth Cameron and Rebecca Katz, both of whom have extensive global health experience.

USAID was consumed by its own power struggle even as election results were still coming in. On Friday, in response to an inquiry from Devex, the agency’s ethics attorney sent an email to John Barsa reminding him that he would reach the end of a 210-day limit on his appointment as acting administrator at midnight — as required by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. The ethics attorney, Jack Ohlweiler, informed Barsa that he would return to his previous position as assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, while Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick, also a Republican political appointee, would take over as head of the agency. Instead, in a sequence that some observers likened to “Game of Thrones,” the White House fired Glick on Friday and named Barsa, known as a Trump loyalist, as acting deputy administrator, which allowed him to retain his position as the acting head of USAID. On Monday, in a leaked video call with other USAID political appointees, Barsa instructed his colleagues not to cooperate with Biden’s transition team until the election results have been certified by a Trump political appointee.

Pfizer and BioNTech announced Monday that their COVID-19 vaccine candidate demonstrated efficacy of 90% in interim results, raising hopes for a successful vaccine, as well as concerns about whether it would be accessible to low- and middle-income countries. The results were from an ongoing phase 3 clinical study of the vaccine, which has enrolled 43,538 study participants, 94 of whom contracted COVID-19. Global health leaders welcomed the announcement as a positive signal that immunization can be effective and that the strategies drug researchers are employing seem to be working. At the same time, Pfizer and BioNTech have not joined COVAX, the global vaccine distribution initiative, though they have already made multiple vaccine deals with a number of high-income countries, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Japan. The scramble to secure access has raised alarms among global health advocates. “The vaccine will be 0% effective to the people who can’t access or afford it,” said Niko Lusiani, senior adviser with Oxfam America, in a statement. The news comes as the World Health Assembly resumes the second half of its session, after splitting the annual gathering into two segments in May. Member state representatives want to find a sustainable financing model for the World Health Organization, given the organization’s overreliance on a small number of donors.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.