A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is scheduled to take up a request Thursday to authorize emergency use of Pfizer’s vaccine. Vaccinations could begin just days later, though initial supplies will be rationed, and shots are not expected to become widely available until the spring.
With the U.S. facing what could be a catastrophic winter, top government officials continue warning Americans anew to wear masks, practice social distancing and follow other basic measures.
The virus is blamed for more than 283,000 deaths and more than 14.8 million confirmed infections in the U.S. New cases per day have rocketed to an all-time high of more than 190,000 on average.
Deaths per day have surged to an average of more than 2,160, a level last seen during the dark days in April, when the outbreak was centered around New York. The number of Americans in the hospital with the coronavirus topped 100,000 for the first time during the last few days.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, warned on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the U.S. death toll could approach 400,000 by the end of January. “As bad as things are right now,” he said, “they’re going to get a lot worse.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending health care workers and nursing home patients get priority when the first shots become available.
Both Pfizer’s vaccine and a Moderna vaccine that will also be reviewed by the FDA later this month require two doses a few weeks apart. Current estimates project that a combined total of no more than 40 million doses will be available by the end of the year. The plan is to use those to fully vaccinate 20 million people.
Dr. Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed, the government’s vaccine development program, suggested on CBS that using those 40 million doses more broadly to reach 40 million people right away would be too risky, because of the possibility of manufacturing delays that could hold up the necessary second doses.
“It would be inappropriate to partially immunize large numbers of people and not complete their immunization,” he said.
But Gottlieb said he would push out as many doses as possible, taking “a little bit of a risk” that the supply would catch up in time for people to get a second dose.
Both shots — one made by Pfizer and BioNTech, the other by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health — are so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines, a brand-new technology. Billions in company and government funding certainly sped up vaccine development — and the unfortunately huge number of infections meant scientists didn’t have to wait long to learn the shots appeared to work.