A visualization of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

As Covid-19 Surges, President-Elect Biden Gears Up to Take Charge

On Saturday night, as a crowd in Wilmington, Delaware, awaited acceptance speeches from president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris, two gigantic screens flanking the stage shared a series of victory messages. “The people,” one read, “have chosen science.”

For months, critics have accused President Donald Trump of systematically ignoring expert advice in his response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 242,000 people in the U.S. (Currently, one of the White House’s most influential Covid-19 advisors, Scott Atlas, is a radiologist with no background in public health.) Those charges build on longstanding allegations that the Trump administration has often sidelined scientists in federal agencies.

As the stage-side slogan suggested, Biden seems eager to draw a contrast ahead of Inauguration Day. In his speech, the president-elect promised that his Covid-19 response would be “built on a bedrock of science.” On Monday, he announced a 13-person Covid-19 advisory panel stocked with high-profile public health experts. Two days later, he named Ron Klain — a lawyer who coordinated the Obama administration’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak — as his chief of staff.

Biden’s announcements were joined by news that received a bipartisan welcome: Early data indicates that a vaccine developed by the drugmaker Pfizer and the German biotechnology startup BioNTech is highly effective at producing an immune response to Covid-19. The results, released Monday, exceeded many experts’ expectations — and they suggest that other leading vaccine candidates, which work in similar ways, could also be effective.

The results are still preliminary, and distributing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which must be stored at about -94 degrees Fahrenheit, would pose formidable logistical challenges. Any vaccine would also come too late to stop the current, record-setting spike of Covid-19 cases sweeping the U.S. As of Thursday, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort, a record 67,096 people in the U.S. are currently hospitalized with Covid-19.

While doctors are getting better at treating Covid-19, hospitals in some states are nearing capacity, leading to fears that physicians will have to make wrenching choices about how to ration care. Already, around 1,000 Americans are dying per day. And, in the absence of a clear national Covid-19 strategy or coordinated policy response, those numbers are likely to climb.

“The cat’s already out of the bag,” Albert Ko, an infectious disease expert at Yale, told The Washington Post. “We’re having widespread transmission. It’s going to get worse, certainly for the next month.”

Also in the News:

• Amid conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, many right wing commentators and conservative groups have rallied around hashtags such as #StopTheSteal, #VoterFraud, and #SharpieGate, the latter of which refers to the disproven claim that Arizona threw out Republican ballots because voters used Sharpie markers. Social media platforms are pushing back: Facebook, for instance, has banned several hashtags, and the company shuttered a large Stop the Steal group, saying it was inciting violence. Twitter has put warning labels on tweets containing disinformation about the election. Now, many conservatives are taking up their cause on Parler, a social media platform that launched about two years ago. According to Parler’s website, the platform encourages users to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.” Parler reportedly grew from 4.5 million to 9 million users in just the past week. This isn’t the first time a new social media platform has enticed users with the promise of a hands-off approach to moderation. The site Gab launched in 2016, welcoming people who had been banned from other platforms for hate speech. Two years later, a Gab user ranted on the site hours before murdering 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the site briefly went dark when GoDaddy, Gab’s domain provider, gave it 24 hours to move to another service. Gab was back online in about a week. (Multiple Sources)

• Concerns about workplace culture at one of America’s storied environmental groups, the National Audubon Society, became public this week after a Politico investigation surfaced “contentions the group devalues contributions by people of color and women.” The president of the 600,000-member society denied the accusations. But two former staffers, both of whom led diversity initiatives for the organization before leaving, said they faced retaliation and threats as they sought to push for change. “No one investigates. There’s no accountability,” said one, adding that the organization’s top executives shut down every issue he raised. A dozen former and current staffers supported those contentions in interviews with Politico. The looming troubles at Audubon follow recent scandals at another major environmental group, The Nature Conservancy. Last year, an independent investigation confirmed ingrained sexual harassment problems in many parts of the organization; several of the group’s top executives resigned during the fallout. (Politico)

• On Monday, tropical storm Theta formed in the eastern Atlantic, breaking the record for most named storms in a single hurricane season. Theta is the 29th named storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. The previous record, of 28 storms, was set in 2005. Under international storm-naming procedures, which are established and overseen by the World Meteorological Organization, the first 21 storms of each Atlantic hurricane season are given people’s names, based on rotating lists. Next, storms are named for Greek letters, and Theta is the 8th storm this season to use the Greek naming system. (The standard names were exhausted on Sept. 18 with the formation of tropical storm Wilfred.) In addition to breaking the named storms record, the 2020 season has seen 12 landfalls of tropical storms so far this season, breaking a 104 year-old record. This hurricane season has also seen an unusually high level of activity later in the year. Tropical storms Wilfred and Alpha formed within the same day, and not since 1887 have late-season named storms been active at the same time. Experts say high ocean temperatures, likely linked to climate change, have contributed to the active storm season. The onslaught may not be over yet: Later this week, a tropical wave headed toward the western Caribbean Sea could potentially become yet another tropical storm. (The Weather Channel)

• Leaders in Denmark are facing criticism this week, after admitting that they were not authorized to order a national cull of the country’s mink to slow the spread of coronavirus. Since June, more than 200 people in Denmark — the world’s largest producer of fur — have been infected with variants of SARS-CoV-2 associated with farmed mink. (The animals, like ferrets, are susceptible to the virus, which can spread quickly in the close quarters in which they are kept.) Twelve of the people infected with the mink-related strain of the virus had a unique variant, known as “Cluster 5,” which authorities worried could have an impact on vaccine development. While the culling of infected mink has been taking place across Europe for months, last week Danish authorities called for all of the country’s mink — up to 17 million — to be killed. On Wednesday, enforcement of the cull was stopped after Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen noted the government did not have the legal authority to require the culling of animals on unaffected farms. As the government now tries to push through emergency legislation to back its order, scientists say there’s little evidence that mink-related mutations will impact vaccine effectiveness. Still, many believe culling the animals is necessary to eliminate the virus’ spread among them. (BBC News)

• And finally: The Trump administration has appointed Jason Richwine, an independent public policy analyst who has advocated basing U.S. immigration policy on IQ test scores, to a senior role at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In 2013, while working at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Richwine co-authored a report claiming that legislation to provide amnesty to undocumented immigrants would cost U.S. taxpayers over $6 trillion. The report was roundly criticized for failing to account for the economic benefits of immigration reform. Richwine subsequently resigned from Heritage after reporters unearthed his Harvard doctoral dissertation, which posited that Hispanics have lower IQs than White people, and that immigrants who do not perform well on IQ tests should not be admitted to the U.S. — arguments widely characterized as racist and unsubstantiated. Neither Richwine, nor NIST, nor the Department of Commerce (of which NIST is a part) provided comment to clarify the scope of Richwine’s new position as deputy undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology. Arden Bement, who served as director of NIST under George W. Bush, told Science that Richwine “appears to have no credentials that would qualify him for the position” and that filling the role “should be reserved for the forthcoming Biden administration.” (Science)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, and Frankie Schembri contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.