The head of the United States coronavirus vaccine programme expressed an optimistic outlook for the largest inoculation drive in the country’s history on Monday, as the first doses of a vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech were shipped across the country.
Dr Moncef Slaoui, head of the White House’s Operation Warp Speed, said 100 million people could be immunised by the end of the first quarter of 2021 after Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine was given emergency use authorisation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday.
On Sunday, the first doses of the vaccine were trucked from a factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with some loaded onto cargo planes to be delivered to sites in every US state.
The head of distribution for Operation Warp Speed said on Saturday that about three million doses would initially be shipped, with the first deliveries arriving at 145 sites on Monday, 425 additional sites on Tuesday and the remaining 66 sites on Wednesday.
Those administering sites, usually large hospitals, had been previously selected by state and local officials and submitted to the federal vaccine programme. An additional three million doses are being held back so those who receive an initial dose can get the required second dose in the coming weeks.
If distribution goes to plan, “we would have immunised 100 million people by the first quarter of 2021,” Slaoui said in an interview with Fox News Sunday.
He added that the government hopes to have about 40 million doses of vaccine distributed by the end of December, which would include the just authorised vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech as well as a vaccine developed by Massachusetts based Moderna Inc, which could receive emergency use authorisation later this week.
Slaoui said another 50 million to 80 million doses will be distributed in January, and the same number in February.
The White House has currently secured 100 million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech, enough to inoculate 50 million people, but, according to The New York Times, declined to initially buy a larger backup order, raising the prospect that the government may not be able to procure more doses until June.
Slaoui said on Sunday the White House is “working with Pfizer to continue helping them and supporting them achieve the objective of providing us with another 100 million doses in the second quarter of 2021”.
Healthcare workers and nursing home residents are expected to receive the first doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Essential workers and people aged above 65 should be the next in line of priority, according to the guidelines.
Political pressures ‘not helpful’
Slaoui also condemned political pressure for vaccines to be approved by the federal regulator, saying it was “not helpful, because it’s not needed” and suggesting such actions could undermine public confidence in a vaccine.
The health official was responding to a question about reports that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) head, Stephen Hahn, on Friday to urge him to authorise the vaccine or possibly lose his job. Trump also tweeted on Friday: “Get out the damn vaccine now, Dr Hahn.”
Slaoui said, “If that phone call happened, I think it was useless and unfortunate, and so are some of the tweets.”
Hahn, for his part, has denied the reports, while refuting in an interview on Sunday claims by Trump that the vaccine could have been approved sooner.
“We do not feel that this could have been out a week earlier,” Hahn told ABC.
Slaoui on Sunday also urged Americans to keep an open mind about the vaccine following an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published last week that found only about half of Americans are ready to take the vaccine.
The US is the hardest-hit country in the world in terms of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. As of Sunday, more than 16 million infections have been confirmed in the country, with nearly 297,000 deaths.
The country has seen a surge as it enters its colder months, with health officials warning that hospitals could soon be overloaded. They have warned against flouting restrictions in light of the promising vaccine updates.