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In 2016, then-Vice President Biden walks with then-Rep. Xavier Becerra (right) to a meeting of the House Democratic caucus. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday announced the key members of his health team, tapping California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be Health and Human Services secretary and Harvard infectious disease expert Rochelle Walensky to be director of the CDC.

Why it matters: The team will immediately be in charge of addressing what will likely still be an out-of-control pandemic, including the government's efforts to distribute coronavirus vaccines.

Other appointments:

  • Anthony Fauci, the current director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, will remain in his post and also serve as Biden's chief medical adviser.
  • Vivek Murthy has been nominated for surgeon general, the same role he served during the Obama administration between 2014 and 2017.
  • Marcella Nunez-Smith will serve as the COVID-19 Equity Task Force chair — a new role in the White House. Smith is a professor at the Yale School of Medicine and the founding director of Yale’s Equity Research and Innovation Center.
  • Jeff Zients will be coordinator of the COVID-19 response and counselor to the president. He previously provided leadership of the 2013 HealthCare.gov tech surge and oversight of the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ fuel-efficiency program.
  • Natalie Quillian will serve as deputy coordinator of the COVID-19 response. She previously coordinated the Obama administration’s interagency response to the opioid epidemic.

What they're saying: “This trusted and accomplished team of leaders will bring the highest level of integrity, scientific rigor, and crisis-management experience to one of the toughest challenges America has ever faced — getting the pandemic under control so that the American people can get back to work, back to their lives, and back to their loved ones," Biden said in a statement.

Worth noting: If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the department. He's also been at the forefront of health care legal battles, most prominently over the future of the Affordable Care Act.

  • Becerra has led the effort by a group of 20 states and the District of Columbia in defending the ACA against a GOP lawsuit aiming to strike down the law. The case was argued in front of the Supreme Court last month.

Between the lines: The virus has disproportionately affected people of color, and Becerra's selection follows increasing pressure on Biden from the Latino community and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to diversity his cabinet, per NYT.

  • On the other hand, Becerra has little experience managing a large bureaucracy or in public health, per Politico.

The big picture: If a global pandemic and the future of the ACA weren't enough, the HHS secretary could end up in charge of executing most of Biden's health agenda, particularly if the Senate remains in Republican hands.

  • Becerra's legal background could prove useful in enacting a lawsuit-proof regulatory agenda.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Vivek Murthy's name.

Go deeper

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: FDA approves Pfizer boosters for high-risk individuals, people 65 and up — Team USA to mandate vaccine for Winter Olympic hopefuls — U.S. to buy 500 million more Pfizer doses to share with the world.
  2. Health: Some experts see signs of hope as cases fall — WHO: Nearly 1 in 4 Afghan COVID hospitals shut after Taliban takeover — D.C. goes further than area counties with vaccine mandates.
  3. Politics: Bolsonaro isolating after health minister tests positive at UN summit — United Airlines says 97% of U.S. employees fully vaccinated — Mormon Church to mandate masks in temples.
  4. Education: Asymptomatic Florida students exposed to COVID no longer have to quarantine — Education Department investigating Texas mask mandate ban — D.C. schools to require teachers, staff to receive vaccine without testing option.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Jan 29, 2021 - Health

Ex-CDC director Tom Frieden on the next COVID-19 vaccines

Americans fortunate enough to receive COVID vaccines now, outside of clinical trials, are getting shots made by either Pfizer or Moderna. But newly released data from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson suggests that more vaccines could be on the way, with J&J's requiring a single dose.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the news and why it matters with Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC, as COVID-19 variants spread globally.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

WHO says most pregnant women can now receive coronavirus vaccine

A doctor administering Moderna's coronavirus vaccine at a university hospital in Essen, Germany, on Jan. 18. Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The World Health Organization has altered its guidance for pregnant women who wish to receive the coronavirus vaccine, saying now that those at high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 or who have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe disease, may be vaccinated.

Why it matters: The WHO drew backlash for its previous guidance that did not recommend pregnant women be inoculated with vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, even though data indicated that pregnancy increased the risk of developing severe illness from the virus.