By: Robin Foster & Ernie Mundell
Pfizer Inc. and the Trump Administration were close to a deal last week that would get more of the company’s coronavirus vaccine to Americans in the coming year.
Such an agreement would help the United States manage a coming vaccine shortage that could leave up to 110 million Americans uncovered in the first half of 2021, The New York Times reported.
So far, only two pharmaceutical companies — Pfizer and Moderna — have won emergency approval for their COVID-19 vaccines. In the Pfizer negotiations, the government is asking for 100 million additional doses from April through June. The company has indicated it could produce at least 70 million more doses if it can get more supplies and raw materials, the Times reported.
The deal calls for the government to invoke the Defense Production Act to give the company better access to roughly nine specialized products it needs to make the vaccine. One person familiar with the list said it included the lipids that encase the RNA material in both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the Times reported.
Moderna and other companies that have worked more closely with Operation Warp Speed to develop their vaccines already receive favored treatment from suppliers, the Times reported. That includes two companies — Sanofi and Novavax — that have yet to begin large clinical trials in the United States.
Pfizer has already contracted to deliver 100 million doses of its vaccine by the end of March. Moderna has the same agreement, and it has also pledged to sell the government 100 million more doses in the second quarter of the year, the Times reported.
Because the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines both require two doses, that supply would cover only 150 million Americans out of the roughly 260 million who are eligible to be vaccinated, the newspaper said.
If Pfizer provides another 100 million doses, that would leave only about 60 million eligible Americans uncovered in the first half of the year, the Times reported. Other producers could also step in and cover the shortfall should their vaccines prove successful.
Experts say new COVID variant may already be in U.S.
As the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are shipped across the country, U.S. experts warned that the new, more infectious variant of the coronavirus recently discovered in Britain may already be circulating in the United States.
“We don’t know that for absolutely certain, but it is reasonable to assume that is going on,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday. “It very well might be here for all we know.”
Several infectious disease experts said Monday the variant may not have even originated in Britain, the Washington Post reported. Instead, it may have been identified there first because the British government has a strong monitoring system that has tracked tens of thousands of genomic sequences of virus samples. The United States has lagged in sequencing and does not have nearly the same level of virus surveillance, the newspaper said.
“It may very well be here. It may have even started here. The sequencing in the U.S. is so sporadic,” Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told the Post.
“It makes sense that it was detected first in the U.K. because they have probably the world’s best surveillance program. It would not shock me at all to find out that it also is circulating in the U.S.,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, in Washington, D.C.
Even though this variant, officially known as B.1.1.7, is concerning and will require close monitoring, it is unlikely to undermine the United States’ mass coronavirus vaccination campaign, said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
“The vaccine is a pretty thorough thing,” Hanage explained. “Whether or not the existing vaccines are less effective against B.1.1.7 is at the moment not known. I think there is good reason to think they will not be severely impacted.”
Some U.S. governors aren’t waiting to find out.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked the three airlines that fly from the U.K. into New York — British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic — to require all travelers to test negative before boarding. British Airways and Delta agreed and began to do so Tuesday, Cuomo said.
“I believe intuitively [the new variant] is already here. because if it’s been flying around the world, it will be here,” Cuomo said. “We learned this lesson the hard way, and we’re not going to go through it again. We have been victimized by federal incompetence and federal negligence, that is fact. And we are not going to be victimized again. I believe my intuition is correct that this is another disaster waiting to happen.”
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Monday that his administration had been in discussion for the past 48 hours with airlines and “stakeholders” in the state about possible new quarantine and testing protocols for travelers arriving from the United Kingdom, the Post reported.
Vaccine campaign begins as poll shows 70% will get it
As the first doses of coronavirus vaccine made their way to the arms of health care workers around the United States, a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 71% of Americans say they will “definitely or probably” get a COVID-19 vaccine.
That’s up from 63% in September, and it’s a sign that a growing number of Americans are starting to trust the science behind the vaccines as they become more comfortable with the speed in which the vaccines are being developed.
Still, just over a quarter of Americans are hesitant to get a vaccine, saying they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were free and deemed safe by scientists. The greatest reluctance was seen among Black Americans, people living in rural areas and Republicans.
And not everyone wants a shot right away: A third of those surveyed said they want to get a vaccine “as soon as possible,” while 39% of those surveyed said they would “wait and see” how initial vaccination efforts go before getting a vaccine themselves. Kaiser polled 1,676 adults for the survey.
U.S. officials said they are on track to meet initial vaccine delivery targets, the Post reported. An additional 2 million Pfizer doses and 5.9 million Moderna doses are scheduled for delivery this week, the Post reported.
Most of the first round of injections were given to high-risk health care workers, the Times said. Because the vaccines can cause side effects including fevers and aches, hospitals have said they will stagger vaccinations among their workers.
Residents of nursing homes, who have suffered a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths, are already getting shots. But a vast majority of Americans will not be eligible for vaccinations until the spring or later.
Azar said the plan is to have 20 million people vaccinated by the end of December, up to 50 million by the end of January and 100 million by the end of February, the Post reported.
A global scourge
By Wednesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 18.2 million while the death toll passed 323,000, according to a Times tally. By Wednesday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with over 1.9 million cases, Texas with more than 1.6 million cases, Florida with over 1.2 million cases; Illinois with over 913,000 cases and New York with more than 871,000 cases.
Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.
In India, the coronavirus case count was over 10 million on Wednesday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. More than 146,400 coronavirus patients have died in India, according to the Hopkins tally, but when measured as a proportion of the population, the country has had far fewer deaths than many others. Doctors say this reflects India’s younger and leaner population. Still, the country’s public health system is severely strained, and some sick patients cannot find hospital beds, the Times said. Only the United States has more coronavirus cases.
Meanwhile, Brazil had over 7.3 million cases and over 188,000 deaths as of Wednesday, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 78.1 million on Wednesday, with over 1.7 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.