The head of the United States government’s coronavirus vaccine effort has said that the first doses of the drug will “hopefully” be administered by mid-December.
Dr Moncef Slaoui made the comments in an interview with CNN on Sunday, just two days after Pfizer and BioNTech applied for emergency use approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for their coronavirus vaccine. The companies have said preliminary trials showed the vaccine appeared to be 95 percent effective – putting it well above the usual FDA threshold for emergency use.
FDA vaccine advisers reportedly will meet from December 8 to 10 to discuss approving the new vaccines. Moderna has said its candidate is 94.5 percent effective.
“Our plan is to be able to ship vaccines to the immunisation sites within 24 hours from the approval,” said Slaoui, who heads so-called Operation Warp Speed, a federal programme that scales up the manufacturing of promising vaccines as they are developed.
“So I expect maybe on day two after approval on the 11th or the 12th of December,” he said.
The official spoke just a day after the US confirmed 12 million cases of the novel coronavirus in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University data. On Friday, the US set another daily record of more than 198,000 newly confirmed cases, amid a surge across the country as the colder months set in.
Health officials have warned that medical systems could be overwhelmed in the coming months and face a crisis greater than they did during the first outbreak earlier this year.
Hospital admissions of patients with COVID-19 have doubled in the US after dropping in the summer months. More than 83,000 people were hospitalised with the virus as of Saturday. To date, at least 255,000 people have died in the US after contracting COVID-19.
On Friday, the Texas National Guard deployed 36 people to El Paso to help with its overloaded morgue operations.
Meanwhile, state officials across the US have increasingly imposed new coronavirus restrictions and warned against travelling and gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday, which takes place on Thursday. Despite those warnings, officials said more than one million travellers were screened at US airports on Friday, only the second time that threshold has been passed since the pandemic began.
The country’s top infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci on Sunday expressed concern at the number of travellers, telling CBS that that people at airports were “going to get us into even more trouble than we’re in right now”.
Separately, he said that “maybe 20 million people will be able to get vaccinated” by the end of the year, and urged people to continue taking precautions against spreading the virus.
In California, a curfew between 10pm and 5am local time (06:00 and 13:00 GMT) began on Saturday. Meanwhile, New York City shut down schools for 1.1 million students earlier this week and Chicago – the third-largest city in the country – has been under stay-at-home orders since Monday.
Beyond Pfizer and BioNTech, and US company Moderna, the UK company AstraZeneca, which is developing a vaccine with Oxford University, has said it expects to have preliminary results by late December. That vaccine is reported to be particularly promising for the elderly.
The prospect of one or more safe and effective vaccines has increased pressure on the administration of President Donald Trump to officially begin the transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden.
Biden was projected as the winner of the election more than two weeks ago, but Trump has refused to concede and blocked agency officials from cooperating with the Biden team, who have said they are pushing ahead with the transition without critical information from government agencies.
Both Slaoui and Dr Anthony Fauci, a top infectious disease expert and member of the coronavirus task force, have stressed in recent interviews the need for a smooth presidential transition to assure a speedy vaccine rollout.
Biden, who will take office on January 20, warned last week: “More people may die if we don’t coordinate.”