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President-elect Joe Biden has chosen retired general Lloyd Austin, who oversaw US forces in the Middle East under President Barack Obama, to be his defence secretary, a person familiar with the decision says.

Austin, who would be the first black US secretary of defence, was a surprise pick over Michelle Flournoy, the woman considered the leading contender for the job. Flournoy would have been the first woman defence secretary.

The news was first reported by Politico.

Austin will need a waiver from Congress since it has been less than the required seven years since he served. He would be the second Pentagon chief in four years to require a waiver after President Donald Trump picked James Mattis, a retired Marine general.

The nomination of Austin, who headed US Central Command under Obama, could draw fire some progressive groups given his role in retirement on the board of a number of companies, including weapons maker Raytheon Technologies Corp.

Biden, who takes office on January 20, also announced members of his health team to lead the administration’s response to the raging coronavirus pandemic.

Biden chose California Attorney-General Xavier Becerra for secretary of health and human services and picked Dr Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, to run the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was named as Biden’s chief medical adviser on the virus.

Biden’s first major challenge in the White House will be containing a resurgent COVID-19 virus that has killed more than 282,000 Americans, and finding ways to jump-start an economy still reeling from millions of pandemic-fuelled job losses.

He installed Jeff Zients, an economic adviser known for his managerial skills, as coronavirus “czar” to oversee a response that will include an unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.

Biden, a Democrat, has pressed ahead with the transition even as Trump, a Republican, refuses to concede the November 3 election and wages a foundering effort to overturn the results with unsubstantiated claims of fraud.

Dozens of Trump’s legal challenges have been rejected by the courts, the latest on Monday when judges in Detroit and Atlanta tossed bids to decertify Biden’s election victories in Michigan and Georgia.

In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Monday certified the state’s results, a statement said, after a third count confirmed Biden’s win. The electoral college will formalise results nationwide on December 14.

Raffensperger said continued debunked claims about voting fraud was “hurting our state”. Run-off elections on January 5 for Georgia’s two US Senate seats will determine which party controls the chamber.

Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has led legal challenges in several states, was being treated in a Washington, DC hospital after testing positive for the virus.