When does Joe Biden become president and what happens to the US coronavirus fight until then?

Donald Trump will remain in office until Joe Biden's inauguration on 20 January 2021. Until then, some health experts fear America's COVID-19 response may fall into jeopardy - particularly without a smooth transition of power.

President-Elect Joe Biden In Wilmington

Joe Biden won't get the keys to the White House until January. Source: Getty Images

US President-Elect Joe Biden will only take office on 20 January next year, and until then, Donald Trump will have few restrictions placed on his powers as president.

With COVID-19 cases surging across the country, Mr Biden and his top advisers have called for an urgent bipartisan approach to address the crisis, with fears any attempt by Mr Trump to block a peaceful transition of power could throw its virus response into jeopardy.

Mr Trump has refused to accept he lost the US presidential election.

“Unfortunately, my administration hasn’t been able to get everything we need,” Mr Biden said on Thursday during a video conference with the National Governors Association’s leadership team in Wilmington, Delaware.

"We are in a very dangerous period," warned Dr Michael Osterholm, a member of Mr Biden's COVID-19 advisory, during an interview with NBC News this week.


Dr Osterholm is director of the University of Minnesota's Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and said that unless action is taken now, “we’re going to see these numbers grow substantially ... our future is in our hands".

November is on track to be the worst month of the pandemic in the US, with at least 40 states reporting record COVID-19 case increases this month. At least 20 states have seen a record rise in deaths.

The US has recorded more than 11 million cases in total and more than 250,000 deaths. Both figures are higher than any other country in the world, something Mr Trump puts down to more testing. 

While the wearing of face masks was an issue politicised by Mr Trump - he himself has worn one on occasion but he has said they were voluntary - some Republican governors have been forced to take strict action.

Last weekend, North Dakota joined 35 other states mandating the wearing of masks while the state of Iowa announced mask requirements under certain circumstances.

Is a bipartisan approach possible?

Some political experts say a bipartisan approach to control the spread of the virus between now and January 2021 is unlikely.

"It's a tragedy," Brendon O'Connor, Associate Professor in American Politics at the University of Sydney, told SBS News.

"It would be good if [America had] a parliamentary system in which you elect a prime minister and they're in [office] the next week. But in America, there's a big turnover of bureaucracy [which] is not that rapid."

Donald Trump delivers an update on Operation Warp Speed, his vaccine initiative, at the White House this week.
Source: AFP/Getty Images

Professor O'Conner said it is likely Mr Trump's promise of a vaccine will also hinder bipartisan action.

"Trump will want to go out with a claim that the vaccine was inspired by him," Mr O'Connor said.

Trump will want to go out with a claim that the vaccine was inspired by him.

- Professor Brendon O'Connor

"The problem with that is that if people feel the vaccine was rushed, there won't be as many people taking up the vaccine or that people who are anti-Trump might be reluctant.

"To think you don't take a vaccine because of political reasons is a bit of a recipe for disaster ... you're going to have really high rates of COVID."

Mary-Louise McLaws, Professor of Epidemiology at UNSW in Sydney and a member of the World Health Organization, is also concerned.

"With Donald Trump leaving in January, most leaders like to leave a mark that they've achieved something," she told SBS News.

"Most politicians rarely do handovers in favour of making it easier for the new, incoming government.

"There is no reason to assume it could get better, but I don't believe it could get worse."

Trump's vaccine legacy 'near-impossible'

When it comes to Mr Trump's promise of a vaccine, Professor McLaws said it is near-impossible for him to introduce a vaccine which has passed all the protocols regarding health, safety and efficacy before the end of his term.

"For all of the 11 vaccine candidates, their pharmaceutical companies have written to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations saying they will not cut any corners," she said. 

"The World Health Organization had a meeting last week and we were all asked to discuss what would happen if a vaccine was to find a positive interim report and protocol be broken," Professor McLaws said.

"There was a unanimous response that the protocols for vaccine safety should not be broken early to ensure that the level of efficacy remains."

She said that patience will be the hallmark of the vaccine's success.

Donald Trump announced he had contracted COVID-19 in early October.
Source: AAP

"President Trump can promise all he likes but if that trial isn't ready to be completed by the end of the year then it's not going to happen."

"Outgoing leaders always want to have a legacy and the vaccine is President Trump's view of a legacy.

"But wanting something is not the same as having scientific proof. It's a hollow promise, it's a salesman's promise, which is not the same as that of a scientist."

Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday the US “has never been more prepared to combat this virus than we are today,” adding one or more vaccines may be available “in a short period of time”. 

"VACCINES ARE COMING FAST!!!" Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday, with his claims that "The Election was a HOAX" continuing this week. 

- Additional reporting by Reuters.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your jurisdiction's restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

Please check the relevant guidelines for your state or territory: NSWVictoriaQueenslandWestern AustraliaSouth AustraliaNorthern TerritoryACTTasmania.


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Published 21 November 2020 at 7:19am
By Jennifer Scherer