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Britain rolls out a vaccine, but what will distribution look like in the U.S.?

The first shots of a COVID vaccine in Britain Tuesday delivered new hope around the world. Officials in the U.S. want to begin rolling out a vaccine in the coming weeks. But there are many concerns about getting the vaccine out to those who need it in the coming months. Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we saw in Yamiche's report, the first shots of a COVID vaccine in Britain delivered new hope around the world today. Federal officials say they hope to begin delivering doses in the U.S. within the next couple of weeks.

    But there are many concerns about getting the vaccine out to those who need it in the coming months.

    Alex Azar is the secretary of health and human services. He was at the president's summit today. And he joins me now from the White House.

    Secretary Azar, thank you very much for joining us tonight.

    I want to ask you first about what Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, is saying. It's saying that it's told the Trump administration that it cannot provide substantial more doses of the COVID vaccine by the middle of the summer because the administration basically declined to purchase a second batch of doses, and that now other countries have bought those up.

    What happened?

  • Alex Azar:

    So, Judy, what Pfizer is telling you is simply inaccurate.

    Unfortunately, they seem to be wanting to do contract negotiations in the media and thinking that this can somehow pressure us.

    Let me — let me lay out what happened here. Back in July, before they had even initiated phase three clinical trials, we contracted with Pfizer to buy 100 million doses of vaccine sight unseen if it got approved by the FDA. Regardless of efficacy, safety, whatever else standards, as long as the FDA approved it, we agreed to buy it, as long as they could deliver by the end of March.

    They refused to commit to any other production or delivery by a time certain. So, we did a 500 million dose option on top of that that we could then negotiate and execute against, because I'm certainly not going to sign a deal with Pfizer giving them $10 billion to buy vaccine that they could deliver to us five, 10 years hence. That doesn't make any sense.

    And that's on top of, of course, the five other companies that we secured 100 million doses from each.

    In early October, again, before we saw phase three data, we commenced negotiations with Pfizer to extend, to do one of those options on vaccines. They still resisted giving us any date by which they would do it. We're making progress. We have made it clear, though, we will use every power of the Defense Production Act to ensure the American people's needs are satisfied.

    And I'm very confident that we will get the vaccine we need and want from Pfizer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking you just very quickly, Mr. Secretary, because the optics of it, what it looks like is that, even with all the lives, people's lives at stake, the administration decided the money was not worth it.

  • Alex Azar:

    No, Judy, that's actually completely inaccurate.

    Remember, this was back in July. They didn't have a vaccine. They had a phase one vaccine that hadn't even entered into phase three. And we gave a guaranteed $2 billion purchase of 10 — of 100 million doses, Judy.

    And we secured a 500 million dose option. And, at the beginning of October, before even seeing phase three data, we have been negotiating with Pfizer to get them nailed down on a date by which they would commit delivery.

    Now, I think we're making progress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me…

  • Alex Azar:

    Pfizer is negotiating in the media. That's not appropriate. And they know better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you this.

    By what date will, do you believe, all Americans who need a vaccine have a vaccine?

  • Alex Azar:

    Yes, we believe, between Pfizer, Moderna and the other vaccines that we have invested in and are bringing forward, we believe that, in the second quarter of next year, there's enough vaccine for every American who would like to be vaccinated to get vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, that's by the end of June, roughly?

  • Alex Azar:

    During the second quarter, right.

    And this will be progressive. This is not a single-moment-in-time event, as you know, Judy. We will have 20 million people vaccinated by the end of just this month. And we had this vaccine summit today with bipartisan group of governors, our retail chain pharmacies, our distributors, FedEx and UPS, to demonstrate just how well-oiled this machine is to get vaccines out there.

    Our governors said they would have 100,000 people vaccinated within hours — within 24 to 48 hours.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that's what I want to ask you.

    What is — exactly is the plan for dividing up the vaccine by state? And where does the federal responsibility end and that of state and local leaders begin to make sure that everybody who needs the vaccine gets it?

  • Alex Azar:

    Yes, so it's been very transparent.

    We are allocating the vaccine, as the governors requested, on a per capita basis, population 18 and over in the states. We buy the vaccine. We pay for the distribution of the vaccine. Through us and private payers, we pay for the administration of the vaccine.

    We ask the governors, because they know the lay of the land, to tell us where they want the vaccine shipped. And we direct the shipment either directly from Pfizer in the case of their vaccine, or through McKesson, the world leading distributed distribution company, in the case of the Moderna vaccine.

    It then goes to CVS, Walgreens, a hospital, a community health center, a public health lab, whatever the governors have, according to their plans. They're almost like air traffic controllers within their state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking in part because what we have heard from president-elect Biden is that he has not seen, that his team has not seen a clear plan for distributing the vaccine from the place where it gets shipped into the country from where it's manufactured into people's arms.

  • Alex Azar:

    It's — I'm sorry. It's just not true, Judy. We're incredibly transparent.

    I do, with General Perna and Dr. Slaoui, an hour-long press briefing every single week where we walk you through in minute detail, down to dry ice levels, how this is being distributed, from the manufacturing plant, to the distributor, to where the governors have told us, how we have kitted 100 million kits at McKesson of syringes and needles and PPE to have that happen.

    Every item is micro-planned. Judy, this is the United States Army that is planning this out with the nation's leading distributors and shipping companies. As they say, this is what we do. We're using the tried-and-true tested system that gets hundreds of millions of vaccines and flu vaccines out every single year.

    Don't invent a new system when you have one that works.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, I'm also asking in part because there are local leaders who say they need more resources, they need funding in order to get the vaccine into every individual, whether it's in urban areas, rural areas.

    There is concern about that.

  • Alex Azar:

    Well, Judy, as — as I have described, we have actually set up these partnerships with CVS, Walgreens, Kroger's, with our community health centers, our hospitals to really take that burden away.

    Now, money is not going to be the barrier to ensuring especially that our underserved get vaccinated or others. So, we will make sure that that is available. But it's also important that they understand, because there are a lot of myths out there about what the role is, the states and the local governments are not being asked to set up vaccine clinics, but, rather, to leverage the systems that already help get people vaccinated every single year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Secretary, the United States, as you know, has 4 percent of the world's population, but it has 23 percent of the cases in the world of COVID-19.

    How did that happen? How did this administration oversee a situation where it is so disproportionately affecting the American people?

  • Alex Azar:

    Well, Judy, as we just talked about, we're on the verge, just days, from having vaccine.

    And we are concerned about the number of cases, the hospitalizations we're seeing in the country. And we're asking people, please, please act responsibly. We want everyone to get to the day where they can get vaccinated. And that means washing your hands, watch your distance, where your face coverings when you can't watch your distance.

    Please be very careful about indoor gatherings.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But that message has been a mixed — that message — excuse me for interrupting — has been a mixed message from the very top, has it not, Mr. Secretary?

  • Alex Azar:

    Judy, every one of us who support and work for the president — the vice president today at the summit made clear those three W's.

    And be careful about indoor gatherings, overcrowded rest — indoor restaurants, overcrowded indoor bars, and household multi-family multi-neighborhood — multi-household gatherings. These are settings of disease transmission.

    And I need your viewers to please be very focused on this as we approach the holiday season. Be careful, because I want to make sure that, next year's holiday season, everybody is able to be together for a normal holiday season because of the vaccines that we're working together to deliver to you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Alex Azar, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, thank you very much.

  • Alex Azar:

    Thank you, Judy.

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