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Why the vaccine rollout in the U.S. has been slower than expected

Editor’s note: Johnson & Johnson is a funder of the PBS NewsHour.

So far, 65 million Americans have received at least one shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. As a country, the U.S. has recently picked up the pace of vaccinations, but there are concerns over supply and demand, which was the subject of a congressional hearing on Tuesday. Miles O'Brien joins John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is one of the most pressing questions in the pandemic right now: When can I and my loved ones get a shot?

    So far, 65 million Americans have received at least one shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Between those two and a third expected vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, companies have pledged as many as 700 million doses by this summer. But there are concerns over just meeting supply and demand this spring.

    That was the subject of a congressional hearing today.

    John Yang has the details.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the leaders of five vaccine manufacturers told Congress today they'd be stepping up production and distribution in the coming days.

    The CDC says Moderna and Pfizer have delivered a total of more than 82 million doses so far. The companies say they will deliver nearly twice that many more by the end of March. Right now, about 1.6 million Americans are being vaccinated each day. But, at that rate, it will take about a year to vaccinate all adults in the country.

    Science correspondent Miles O'Brien has been tracking all this for us.

    Miles, what's the holdup? Why is this not moving as fast as so many — many people would hope it would?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, John, as I think a lot of people know by now, the two vaccines that had the emergency use authorization are an entirely different way of doing vaccines, messenger RNA.

    It is a piece of genetic material that teaches our own body to produce what looks like the spiky coronavirus protein, and thus, in turn, teaches our body it is a bad thing and to go after it. It is a great way to treat the immune system.

    But that messenger RNA, if you just inject the RNA into your system, it melts like a snowflake. It has to be in a package. And the package in this case are so-called nano-lipids, tiny little balls of fat, essentially, that enable the mRNA to survive until it gets to the cell that it needs to get to do the work it needs to get to.

    Well, the production of these lipids is very specific, customized, bespoke. It requires something on the order of 10 steps and machines which did not exist prior to this being approved. And so it's taken a lot longer to get all the lipids in place to make these vaccines deliverable.

    The companies say they're past the worst part of this, and hopefully they can begin ramping up.

  • John Yang:

    And will — I mean, there are more vaccines in the pipeline that don't rely on this technology. Will getting emergency approval for those, will that speed things up?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, that will help quite a bit.

    The companies, first of all, they have banded together. They have manufacturing agreements. So they're starting to ramp up production by using their competitors' facilities, which is a good thing.

    And then there's a third vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which should be approved pretty soon, really any day now. It is a single-dose vaccine and can be refrigerated, instead of delivered at dry ice temperatures, and has a lot of promise. And that one is about to come in the mix.

    So, that is going to help the picture significantly.

    It's interesting, John. Before all of this, we were thinking it was going to be vials and syringes and cold storage. But those issues apparently have been pretty much solved. It's little things like the lipids that have come to bite them you know where.


  • John Yang:

    A lot of people are eager to get the vaccine because they want — they think it'll — or they hope it'll sort of return to normal life.

    But there's a scientific reason why we should want to pick up the pace as well, isn't there?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, because the coronavirus, like every virus, is constantly mutating.

    And the more time it has to mutate, and we're still in an uncontrolled pandemic mode, the more likely the vaccines, which are currently in approval phase, won't be effective. And so we will — it's a bit of a race.

    We have — we're running this race for a ton of reasons, as you alluded to. But there's also a scientific component. We want to get these vaccines into people's arms as quickly as possible, so that we don't get an additional mutation that might be more virulent and might not be responsive to the vaccinations.

  • John Yang:

    And with this slow pace, there's also a little bit of vaccine envy, isn't there?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You know, there really is.

    I think, if you and I were talking about this a year ago, and we said, it's going to be a year-and-a-half before, in theory, people will all be vaccinated, we'd say, oh, that's manageable. And, certainly, given the fact that it normally takes a decade, we might conceptually say that's OK.

    But now, we're in a period of time where our neighbors, our friends, my father are all getting vaccinated, and I'm not. And I'm thinking, gosh, I'd really like to be vaccinated too. So, there's a component of psychology here, which makes people a little bit impatient.

    But let's not forget this has been unprecedented in every level. And these big companies have sort of been building the airplane in flight, if you will.

  • John Yang:

    Miles O'Brien on the vaccine progress, or lack of progress, thank you very much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, John.

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