Biden plans to release more Covid vaccine doses in break from Trump administration policy

biden-plans-to-release-more-covid-vaccine-doses-in-break-from-trump-administration-policy

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks as he announces his Justice Department nominees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., January 7, 2020.

Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

President-elect Joe Biden plans to release more doses of the Covid vaccines once he takes office, breaking from the Trump administration’s policy of holding reserve doses to ensure there’s enough for second shots and to account for manufacturing issues.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two shots 21 days apart and the Moderna vaccine requires two shots 28 days apart. Officials from President Donald Trump‘s vaccine program, Operation Warp Speed, have withheld half of the available doses to ensure they can administer second shots in a timely fashion.

Some public health specialists have advocated for releasing all available doses, because there’s some evidence of protection against Covid-19 after just the first shot and it’s likely that manufacturers will be able to meet the demand for second doses.

“The President-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible. He supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now,” T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for Biden’s transition team, told NBC News. “He will share additional details next week on how his Administration will begin releasing available doses when he assumes office on January 20th.”

CNN first reported the news.

But the initially slow rollout of the vaccines appears to have less to do with distribution of the doses to states and more to do with actual administration of the shots. As of Thursday, the U.S. had administered less than 30% of the doses that have already been distributed to states, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And officials, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have acknowledged concerns that if the federal government does not guarantee second doses, hospitals might initiate their own reserve of doses to ensure they have enough supply. That would further slow the effort to administer shots.

Biden representatives did not return requests for comment on how ramping up distribution will accelerate administration of the shots.

Advocates of pushing more doses say that states are ramping up their ability to inoculate residents. Some also point to the severity of the outbreak, which is now killing more Americans than ever, as a reason to get as many doses into the public as possible. And still others point to new variants of the virus that have emerged as a threat, adding more urgency to quickly vaccinate the public.

Michael Pratt, spokesman for Operation Warp Speed, emphasized that people who received the first dose of either vaccine should get their second dose on schedule. He added that to delay the second shot would be “contrary to the FDA’s approved label.”

“If President-Elect Biden is suggesting that the maximum number of doses should be made available, consistent with ensuring that a second dose of vaccine will be there when the patient shows up, then that is already happening,” Pratt said in a statement to CNBC. “Second-dose management was always about ensuring supply chain availability.”

A plea from governors

The shift in policy comes after a group of eight governors, all Democrats, wrote to Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Army Gen. Gustave Perna, who oversees logistics for Operation Warp Speed, asking them to distribute “reserved doses” of the vaccines to states that are prepared to distribute them.

“Our states are ready to work around the clock to ramp up distribution, get more shots in arms, and save more American lives. General Perna, as you have stated before, ‘a vaccine sitting on a shelf is not effective,'” the governors wrote in the letter. “We couldn’t agree with you more. That’s why we are asking for your help now. When we work together, we can end this pandemic and return to a life of normalcy sooner.”

Operation Warp Speed has contended that it’s necessary to withhold some available doses of the vaccines to ensure everyone who got their first dose will get their booster shot on schedule. Officials are also withholding some doses in reserve in case of manufacturing problems.

Biden advisors have previously said he intends to use the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to compel companies to prioritize manufacturing for national security, to spur vaccine manufacturing.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under Trump’s administration, called Biden’s policy change “a prudent move that will help expand Covid vaccine access to more high-risk patients at a time when the epidemic is worsening.” Gottlieb also sits on the board of Pfizer. Representatives of the company did not return CNBC’s request for comment.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last weekend in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that not guaranteeing a supply of second doses “goes against the science.” But a Biden transition official said the incoming administration is confident that through the use of the Defense Production Act, it will be able to provide all second doses.

Off to a slow start

The initial rollout of the vaccines has been slower than expected, with the U.S. failing to hit the goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans in December, as federal officials had aimed for.

However, top health officials, including Fauci and Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, have said the pace will likely pick up this month. The rollout has already shown some signs of slowly gaining speed.

The U.S. administered more than 600,000 shots in 24 hours, the CDC reported Thursday. That’s the most in a one-day period so far, according to the agency’s data. More than 21.4 million doses have been distributed, according to the data, but just 5.9 million have been administered.

Amid criticism of a slow initial rollout, HHS officials are now urging states to move beyond the first tier of prioritization. Health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities are supposed to receive the vaccine first, according to guidance from the CDC. But Azar said earlier this week that states should open up to more old and vulnerable Americans if it will hasten the pace of the rollout.

Also adding to the pressure to quickly vaccinate is the arrival of a new strain of the virus. The new variant, known as B.1.1.7, which was first discovered in the United Kingdom, has now been found in at least seven states. While it does not appear to cause people to become more severely sick, CDC officials say they believe it spreads more easily. That could make the outbreak even worse and quickly overwhelm hospitals, CDC officials said last week.

— CNBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn contributed to this report.

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