An aid worker from the Spanish NGO Open Arms touches coronavirus detection test kits at a nursing home in Barcelona, Spain.

An aid worker from the Spanish NGO Open Arms touches coronavirus detection test kits at a nursing home in Barcelona, Spain. Santi Palacios / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: HHS Cancels Celebrities Campaign; FDA Approves First Rapid At-Home COVID-19 Test

There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.

Pfizer and BioNTech announced on Wednesday morning that their coronavirus vaccine is 95% effective, which comes a week after it released early results saying the vaccine was over 90% effective. The companies plan to seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration “within days.” They are not formally part of “Operation Warp Speed,” but signed a $1.95 billion contract with the Trump administration in July to supply 100 million doses if their vaccine is approved. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

On Tuesday, the Health and Human Services Department inspector general issued a report on HHS’ top management challenges for fiscal 2021, many of which involve the pandemic. These include: mitigating negative health consequences of COVID-19; ensuring transparency and accountability in use of pandemic funds; implementing telehealth and other flexibility; providing access to timely and accurate coronavirus data; coordinating activity among federal, state, tribal and private sector stakeholders; and more. 

HHS abandoned a $15 million contract with Atlas Research to use celebrities in a coronavirus public relations campaign, which was part of a larger, $300 million campaign to “inspire hope” about the pandemic, Politico reported on Tuesday. This campaign has garnered much trepidation from Democratic lawmakers. “Following the outcry, HHS commissioned an internal review, with input from career civil servants, about whether the campaign met public health goals,” said the report. “HHS concluded the Atlas contract should be canceled, but it found the broader awareness campaign could continue.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during an event on Tuesday that he could have been “much more vocal” about the need for mass testing earlier on in the pandemic. He also said that President-elect Joe Biden has a “considerable, in fact, if not profound” grasp of and appreciation for science, though he said the two have not spoken since Biden left office four years ago, Stat News reported

NIAID’s advisory committee on the coronavirus will have a closed meeting on December 11 to “review and evaluate grant applications,” according to a notice posted in the Federal Register on Wednesday. 

Biden’s coronavirus task force said on Tuesday that not being able to work with the Trump administration is hindering their pandemic preparations. “The transition team is unable to consult with federal health officials or access real-time data on available hospital beds, the status of the national strategic stockpile and therapeutics, among other things,” Politico reported. “For now, they said that's forcing them to rely on piecemeal data from state and local officials and public sources like the Covid Tracking Project.”

On Tuesday, the FDA issued emergency use authorization for the first at-home coronavirus test that provides quick results. “This new testing option is an important diagnostic advancement to address the pandemic and reduce the public burden of disease transmission,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn. 

The Census Bureau launched the third phase of its survey to measure how small businesses are faring during the pandemic. The first results will come out on Thursday and then will be released weekly. “The responses from the prior phases have been enormously valuable in gaining a deeper understanding about how small businesses are faring during the pandemic,” said the Census Bureau on Tuesday. “Given the duration of the pandemic, there is a continued need for this information to help inform policy.”

On Tuesday, the Justice Department IG issued its second interim report about DoJ’s Office of Justice Programs' use of CARES Act funds, which received 84% of the department's total funds. “As of August 22, 2020, OJP’s Bureau of Justice Assistance had awarded 99.7% of the $850 million received under the CARES Act, and that most recipient spending we reviewed appeared allowable under the terms and conditions of the grant award,” said the IG. “When concerns were identified related to unallowable spending or a lack of adherence to internal policies and procedures, OJP acted quickly to remedy the issues, as discussed in detail [in the report].”

Jeff Tribiano, deputy commissioner at the Internal Revenue Service, outlined on Tuesday how the IRS was able to have a successful tax filing season amid the pandemic and distributing stimulus checks authorized in the CARES Act. “This has been an unprecedented year unlike any we’ve ever seen. And with COVID-19 continuing and another major tax season approaching in 2021, the IRS still has more work to do,” he said. “But as I’ve seen throughout my career of service to the nation, times like this bring out the best in people. As the IRS has throughout its history, our employees deliver for the nation in times of crisis.” 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about technology priorities for the incoming Biden administration.  

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