May 20, 2024


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US Government’s Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine approval starts rollout of mass-vaccination program. Here’s what we know

The US Government’s approval of a COVID-19 vaccine will set off the largest vaccination campaign in the country’s history.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light for the emergency use of a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and US President Donald Trump said the first shots would be administered “in less than 24 hours”.

It comes at a time when the United States has recorded around 15.5 million infections and close to 300,000 deaths from the virus.

But it’s not a silver bullet, just yet.

Logistical challenges, supply issues and scepticism about the inoculations will play a part in the rollout of the vaccine, which is expected to reduce the number of deaths and hospitalisations due to COVID-19 and help the country return to normal.

Here’s what we know.

Is there enough of the vaccine to go around?

In an announcement of the approval, Mr Trump said the US had a deal with Pfizer to produce 100 million doses of the vaccine, with an option to order 500 million more.

That would be enough to vaccinate the entire US population.

To start with though, the US has 6.4 million doses of the vaccine.

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US President Donald Trump says the first vaccinations will take place in less than 24 hours.

Less than half of these, around 2.9 million, will be sent to states in the coming days, according to General Gustave Perna, who is the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, which is overseeing the US Government’s development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Another 2.9 million doses will be held in reserve for those people to receive their second shot 21 days later, while 500,000 doses will be kept ready for any unexpected circumstances.

Pfizer board member and former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in an interview with CNBC earlier this week that the company had offered to sell the United States more doses as recently as last month but had been turned down.

The FDA is this week considering an emergency use approval of a vaccine created by Moderna, which will also help with supply numbers.

The United States has agreed to buy 200 million doses of Moderna’s two-dose vaccine.

The Government also has supply deals with J&J and AstraZeneca, but authorisation of those vaccines are not imminent.

Who gets it first?

A group of health workers in full PPE surround a man on a hospital bed
Hospitals around the United States have been under pressure due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.(Reuters: Callaghan O’Hare)

With thousands of people dying every day and hospital intensive care units around the country nearing capacity, there is likely to be a lot of interest in getting the vaccine.

But Mr Trump said “senior citizens, healthcare workers and first responders” would be “first in line” to receive the first round of 2.9 million doses this month.

Initial limitations on supplies mean most of the general public will have to wait months for the vaccines to become widely available.

Mr Trump said state governors would decide where the vaccines will go in their state and who will get them first.

There have been preparations on the ground to ensure the vaccine can be administered as soon as possible.

The Indiana University Health centre, one of the first hospitals designated to administer the vaccine, rehearsed its vaccination procedures on Friday, with pharmacists, nurses and doctors taking part in drills for storing, transporting and giving actual shots to patients.

How do the supplies reach everyone?

A white cardboard box sits open on a trolley in front of fridges.
Pfizer has created a special box for shipping the vaccine.(AP: Pfizer)

The vaccine comes with complex distribution challenges as it must be shipped and stored at -70 degrees Celsius, requiring specialised ultra-cold freezers or supplies of dry ice.

Pfizer has developed a special shipping container that will be filled with dry ice to keep the vaccine from spoiling.

Many states are concerned about whether there is enough dry ice for shipments to rural areas that lack the specialized freezers, but Pfizer believes there should be sufficient supply.

Delivery companies United Parcel Service (UPS) and FedEx have contracts to deliver millions of doses across the country, giving top priority to the vaccines on their aeroplanes and trucks.

Mr Trump said the companies had already started “shipping the vaccine to every state and zip code in the country”.

A man in a labcoat, mask and gloves stands next to a fridge.
The COVID-19 vaccine will need to be kept in ultra-cold freezers at -70C.(AP: Mark Lennihan)

Plans call for US marshals to provide security for vaccine shipments from manufacturing facilities to distribution sites, including acting as escorts for delivery trucks.

In New York City, officials announced plans to open a vaccine command centre across the street from City Hall to coordinate distribution throughout the nation’s largest city.

Particular attention will be paid to 27 hard-hit neighbourhoods largely populated by ethnic minorities, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

When will everyone be vaccinated?

US president-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on January 20, has said he wants 100 million Americans vaccinated within his first 100 days in office (by April 30).

But any American who wants a vaccine should be able to get one by May or June, Assistant US Health Secretary Brett Giroir told Fox News.

Top US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci said if distribution goes well and enough Americans agree to get vaccinated, relief for a pandemic-weary nation may be on the horizon.

“As we get to the end of 2021, we could approach very much some degree of normality that is close to where we were before,” Dr Fauci said.

But polls have raised questions about how many people will be willing to get the vaccine.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed only 61 per cent of respondents were open to getting inoculated.

Many Americans have disregarded urgent pleas to limit travel, refrain from unnecessary gatherings and wear masks in public, as state and local leaders have imposed a raft of constraints on social and economic life in recent weeks to slow the contagion.

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the vaccine approval was “one step in a sequence of steps that will bring this pandemic to an end”, but warned there would be some dire consequences before the country became immunised.

“A lot of people will be infected, a lot will be hospitalised and a lot will die before the vaccine is able to have a meaningful impact on spread,” he said.