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Dr. Vivek Murthy on new US inoculation strategy and distributing vaccines abroad

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, a key member of the president's team combating COVID-19, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss President Joe Biden's aims to vaccinate 70 percent of all U.S. adults with at least one dose by July 4, and how a focus on rural communities will help achieve that goal, and how the U.S. plans to distribute vaccines abroad.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden's remarks today signal somewhat of a shift about vaccine distribution and about expectations of how many adults will get vaccinated by midsummer.

    We look at this and other pressing questions with the U.S. surgeon general. He is Dr. Vivek Murthy. He's a key member of the president's team on COVID.

    Dr. Murthy, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let me ask you about the — what appears to be a shift in emphasis away from these mass vaccination sites to an attempt to get a more individualized approach, a community-based approach to try to reach as many people as possible.

    How much concern is there that there's resistance to getting the vaccine?

  • Dr. Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, it's good to see you today.

    And I think this is a really important topic, which is, how do we move forward in this next phase of the vaccination campaign? And there are a few obstacles and challenges that we are trying to address. Each phase of this campaign has had its own challenges.

    But, right now, what we have got to do is, number one, make sure that people who have questions about the vaccine get answers from trusted sources. Number two, we have got to make sure that people who are wondering if it's important for them to get vaccinated recognize that it is, that we don't achieve community immunity without all of us being vaccinated.

    And the third is, we have got to create more access points for people. That has already been under way for the last few months. But what you're seeing is the next phase of that, moving toward both smaller community vaccination centers, more mobile units, moving to mandating and requiring and asking for pharmacies to actually move from the appointment basis into more of a walk-in system, so people can get vaccines on their schedule, and not on a pharmacy's schedule.

    All of these steps are aimed toward increasing access to the vaccine. And, finally, I should note the primary care pathway. We are increasingly working to get vaccines into primary care doctors' offices and to rural health clinics, which are getting going to get vaccines directly from the federal government, as well as funds to support outreach.

    So, if these sound like many strategies, they are, because that's what's required at this point to reach the entire country. We got to have many pathways, many messengers, and many doors through which one can get vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I'm curious about how difficult you think it's going to be.

    The president, as we know, set that goal of 70 percent of American adults by July the 4th. You're already at more than half of American adults. How difficult will it be?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, this next goal will require us to administer 100 million shots in the next 60 days. And that's very different from the 100 — first 100 million shots.

    These are going to be more challenging in some ways. But it's really important that we pull out all the stops to reaching this goal. And it's why you're seeing multiple strategies laid out here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The New York Times reporting yesterday, quoting some administration officials, high-level officials, saying, this concept of herd immunity is no longer something that they think is even worth focusing on, because it is now known that a significant percentage of Americans, 20, 30 percent, say they don't want the vaccine at all.

    There's now, it appears, a belief that COVID is going to be there in the background for a long time to come, and Americans are just going to have to live with it.

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, I — this is a very interesting point, because I find that discussion around herd immunity can sometimes be not as helpful as I think we'd want it to be.

    I think the real focus should be on how we reduce infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. And the data is very clear. The way we do that is to get more people vaccinated.

    Thinking about a magic number that we need to hit, 70 percent, 75 percent, 80 percent, is really hard to do, and I think it's misleading, because it conveys this idea that there's a switch that is flipped, and that, until we reach that threshold, nothing gets better, but, as soon as we reach a threshold, that, all of a sudden, a switch flips and everything gets better and the virus goes away.

    But, in reality — the reality is this, that we have got to vaccinate as many people as we can., And as we do that, we will see life get better, we will see infections reduced, and we will be able to get back to our way of life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Murthy, I do want to ask you about the rest of the world.

    The U.S. has been very fortunate. As we have said, more than half of American adults have now had at least one shot of the vaccine. But so much of the rest of the world has not been as fortunate, in India, this terrible humanitarian disaster. So many countries, just a fraction of a percent of their population have received a vaccine.

    How urgent does the U.S. view this decision on either sharing what the U.S. has, like AstraZeneca, which is not being given here in the U.S.? Why not go ahead and share that with other countries?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, and I'm glad you asked.

    And our fate as a country, it is inextricably linked to the rest of the world. And we know that for so many reasons. One is because we have learned time and time again, whether it was during Ebola and Zika, now with COVID, that an infection in one country can rapidly come to another country.

    But the second reason this is so important is because we know that, when there's uncontrolled spread of the virus, new variants can develop. And those variants can then travel here to the United States.

    And I think we must do more and we will do more. And you have already seen steps taken from the United States, investing in COVAX to help build the foundation for supplying the rest of the world with vaccine. You also saw with AstraZeneca that the U.S. announced that it will give the doses it has right now, approximately 10 million doses, as soon as they are cleared by the FDA.

    We will start distributing those to the rest of the world, with an additional 50 million (AUDIO GAP) of AstraZeneca likely to come in May and June.

    But, ultimately, what we have got to do is, we have got to — we have got to intend to get to a comment and a critical endpoint, which is to make sure that the world has access to an adequate quantity of low-cost vaccine, so that they can vaccinate their population.

    And whether we get there through government action, or through the private sector acting, or through a combination of the two, we have to get there, because that is the only way we protect our country in the long term. And we have, I believe, an obligation to look out for the rest of the world as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But I'm asking specifically because this is, as you know, life or death. Every day, lives are being lost. And AstraZeneca has been approved in other parts of the world.

    There's also this question about sharing patents with other countries. The sense is that it's taking longer than it should to make these decisions here in the United States.

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, with the AstraZeneca vaccine, again, as soon as that batch is cleared by the FDA here, that can then move out to the rest of the world to be shared.

    But it is not the case that we have a vaccine that is fully produced and cleared by the FDA that can be used today by AstraZeneca. Otherwise, those doses would be out. And you will see the 50 additional million doses in May and June follow.

    But, look, in order to produce a vaccine that the rest of the world needs, there are several things that we need to work to put into place. We need to build and help support the manufacturing capacity. We need to ensure that the raw materials are there in adequate supply. We need to ensure the technology transfer happens from private companies to facilities in other countries, so they can produce for now and also produce for later.

    And those are steps that absolutely the United States has been engaged in conversations on those issues, and is working as quickly as possible to move that forward, because we recognize what is at stake, which is our fate, the fate of the world, and millions of people who are infected right now and whose lives hang in the balance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Dr. Murthy, we know that you have experienced loss in your own family. Seven of your family members have died as a result of COVID.

    How has this affected your approach to this crisis?

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Well, Judy, I have lost seven family members to COVID. But I know many others have lost family members too.

    And all of us, whatever our walks of life may be, have been affected in some way by this virus. Maybe we have had family members and friends who are hospitalized. Maybe our kids have had their education interrupted.

    Maybe your kids are like my kids, my 3- and 4-year-old, who constantly asked when they can go back to seeing their friends and their grandparents again. These are the questions that affect all of us, and that it's affected all of our lives.

    But, for me, it's made this a very personal mission. Addressing COVID-19, doing so from this role in government, is not an opportunity. It's not a role I ever thought I would have. But it is one that I feel called to serve in, because I, like many people in our country, want to do everything I can to turn this pandemic around.

    And I think that the way we get there is not through individuals alone making a decision about getting vaccinated and then getting vaccinated. I think we have got to do that. But we have also got to go one step beyond and recognize that we now all have a responsibility to do what we can for as many people around us as possible.

    And I hope, if we all step up and do this for our communities, that we will not only turn this pandemic around, but we will leave our communities and our connections with one another stronger, more resilient than before this pandemic even began.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Vivek Murthy, we are, again, so sorry for the losses in your family.

    Thank you very much for joining us.

  • Vivek Murthy:

    Thank you, Judy. Take care.

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