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Britain approves a COVID-19 vaccine, raising questions about a U.S. rollout

Britain’s approval Wednesday of Pfizer's COVID vaccine dialed up the anticipation, pressures and questions about vaccines in the U.S. and how the distribution will be handled. William Brangham spoke with Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific officer for the federal government's vaccine program, to learn more about the implementation of a vaccine.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United Kingdom's approval today of Pfizer's COVID vaccine dialed up the anticipation, pressures and questions about vaccines in the U.S. and how the distribution will be handled.

    William Brangham talks with one of the federal government's leading authorities on making this happen.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the Pfizer vaccine, which needs ultra-cold storage, is likely to be available in the U.S. later this month. And it will likely go to health care workers and then to elderly Americans living in long-term care facilities.

    The government's program also anticipates offering the vaccine from Moderna later this month.

    All told, the government says 20 million people could be vaccinated in the U.S. by the end of this year and possibly 100 million by the end of February 2021.

    Dr. Moncef Slaoui is the chief scientific officer for the government's vaccine program, known as Operation Warp Speed. And he joins me now.

    Dr. Slaoui, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    A hundred million Americans by the end of February, that seems a remarkably optimistic and ambitious goal.

  • Moncef Slaoui:

    Well, it is an ambitious goal, and it's a goal that we have been working very hard since the month of May to be able to achieve, frankly.

    We are, as you know, on the verge of having two vaccines approved, I hope, by the FDA, on December 11 or so and December 18 or so. And we can start immunizing.

    We think we will have 40 million doses of these vaccines in the month of December. That's enough to immunize 20 million people, because each individual needs two of the vaccines. And we plan to have about 60 million doses in the month of January, and then 100 million doses between these two vaccines in the month of February.

    And we feel that the plan is achievable. It's stretched, it's challenging, but it's achievable.

  • William Brangham:

    It is remarkable that we're even talking about vaccines being developed and rolled out in the same year we have discovered the virus we're trying to vaccinate against.

    You have said that we could be close to herd immunity in the U.S. by as early as May. How many Americans would likely have to be vaccinated to achieve that goal?

  • Moncef Slaoui:

    Yes, this is very, very important, frankly, an area of potential concern for everybody involved in public health, in the sense that we need about 75 to 80 percent of the total population to be immune against the virus for herd immunity to really impact the rest of the population.

    We will be producing enough vaccine doses by the month of May to cover about 80 percent of the population. What we don't know, but we really hope that it will happen, is that the vaccine doses will actually be used, and people will accept to be immunized, very, very important.

    We are working hard, trying to talk to everybody about how we develop this vaccine, how we didn't cut any corner, we took financial risk, we took operational risk. We did not take any scientific or safety risk.

    We are thrilled that the vaccines are highly efficacious. And we look forward to the reviews, totally transparently, by independent bodies, independent advisory board, for instance, to the FDA, that will look into the data, discuss the data in public transparently, and then potentially recommend the vaccine for approval.

  • William Brangham:

    You're talking about this concern that many people share that there's a lot of people who are suspicious about vaccines and might not take them, even if the data are quite good.

    What other challenges, apart from that, do you see as challenges in the road ahead?

  • Moncef Slaoui:

    Well, there are several challenges.

    First, our plans rely on six vaccines being successful and approved. We have two. We have another two that are completing their phase three trials probably reading out in January and hopefully approved in late January or early February.

    They need to be effective. We hope they will be, but we're never sure. We will know when we know. And then two more that may come in the month of May. Those may have less impact on the first round of immunization, I would say, in the population.

    The second thing that needs to happen is, we are manufacturing this vaccine daily, and every single dose that we produce will be shipped outside. This is very complex manufacturing, and we just reached the industrial scale for manufacturing.

    Problems could happen. We don't have reasons to believe that they will happen, but having long experience for 30 years producing new vaccines, early on, things happen, reality happens. We may have slippages of time by a week or a day or two weeks.

  • William Brangham:

    The World Health Organization today cautioned that there may simply not be enough vaccine in the supply chain to head off a major surge this winter, which many people fear.

    Do you worry that this good news — and it is undeniably good news — about these vaccines might cause some people to loosen up their precautions and think, oh, the end is near, we don't have to worry about masking and distancing and all those things?

  • Moncef Slaoui:

    Well, this is a real concern, indeed, because vaccine, even in this country, where, unfortunately, we are experiencing a major surge, and it could get worse, unfortunately, we will not be able to immunize all the population all at once.

    This is going to happen gradually over the next five or six months. During that period of time, everyone needs to assume and act as if they were not protected. We need to have our masks, we need to keep our distance, we need to wash our hands.

    We need to continue to be extremely aware of what we're doing and where we are, because, even if we are immunized, we may be protected against disease, but we may carry the virus to somebody else, and just we would show the wrong example.

    So I think it's a very important point that you raise. It is a concern. I hope everybody would understand. It's a matter of only a few months. So, please, be patient and be resilient.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific officer for the Operation Warp Speed, thank you very much for being here.

  • Moncef Slaoui:

    My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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