Special: What Does FDA Approval of Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Mean?

Aug. 27, 2021 AT 8:17 p.m. EDT

This week, the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, prompting companies to impose vaccine and mask mandates. The panel discussed what the approval of the vaccine means, and what to expect going forward.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.

On Monday, the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The long-awaited decision could help President Biden’s efforts to control the surge of new COVID cases and the more contagious Delta variant.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The moment you’ve been waiting for is here. It’s time for you to go get your vaccination. And get it today – today.

MS. ALCINDOR: Following the approval, the Pentagon and many companies across the country announced new vaccine mandates.

Joining us tonight to talk about all of this, Yasmeen Abutaleb, national health policy reporter for The Washington Post; and joining us in studio, Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for NBC News; and Ayesha Rascoe, White House correspondent for NPR.

Yasmeen, I know you’re probably coming on this show every week thinking, is Yamiche going to continue to call me? And I’m like, yes, when we’re in a pandemic, we call Yasmeen.

Some people were so hesitant to get the vaccine. They were saying they weren’t going to get it unless there was FDA authorization. Now that’s happened. What impact, though, do we think that this is going to really have on vaccine rates?

YASMEEN ABUTALEB: So I’m a little bit skeptical that, on the people who are holding out, that the approval is suddenly going to change their minds. My colleague, Dan Diamond, wrote a story earlier in the week where he spoke with 16 people who had been holding out, and 15 of them told him the approval was not going to change their minds.

But I think where it’s going to make a really big difference, which you were talking about right at the beginning, is that this clears the last legal hurdle for any companies that wanted to have a vaccine mandate but were worried about potential legal challenges. Now, with the full FDA approval, companies can do this, knowing they’re legally clear.

So you saw the Pentagon do it, which was a huge one for members of the military. That’s a really big one. And you saw a number of major large corporations follow with their own mandates. So I think that’s where it’s going to make a really big difference, because these companies that are announcing mandates now cover tens of thousands of workers in all parts of the country. So I think that’s where we’re going to really start to see the increase.

MS. ALCINDOR: And what do we know – what more do we know about the authorization status of – the full FDA authorization status of the Moderna vaccine, the J&J, the Johnson & Johnson vaccines?

MS. ABUTALEB: Pfizer has always been a little bit ahead. It’s kind of been first on every front here. It was first with the authorization, and Moderna was only about a week behind. J&J was a few weeks behind that. So I think the full approval for these other vaccines, especially Moderna, should be following pretty closely behind Pfizer.

But I think this first step with Pfizer is really important because all these vaccines kind of came out around the same time, just a few weeks apart. And it’s signaling to people that – we’ve had real-world evidence too. While they have to submit the evidence from their clinical trials, there’s plenty of real-world evidence showing that these vaccines are highly effective.

MS. ALCINDOR: And I want to ask you one other thing. You talk about the idea of being skeptical that these vaccine approvals will impact people. You’re a health reporter, so I wonder, when you look at the sort of polarization of health, is there any sort of scientific impact or any sort of scientific thing that could possibly change this when you talk to experts?

MS. ABUTALEB: In terms of people getting the vaccine –


MS. ABUTALEB: – I think you’re seeing – right. So I think you’re seeing some of this now with the Delta wave. Actually, even before the full approval from Pfizer, you saw vaccination rates going back up for the first time since July, going back to levels like 800(,000) and 900,000, I think even through passing a million on one day or a couple of days.

So I think actually the fear from the Delta wave and seeing it ravage especially these southern states with lower vaccination rates has actually proven to be a pretty big motivator for people to go get the vaccine. So I think just the fear of this variant is actually pushing a lot of people who might have been holding out until now to go ahead and get the vaccine.

MS. ALCINDOR: Fear absolutely moves people. And the people that I’ve been talking to, some of them who were hesitant, seeing your friends, your family members die, absolutely sometimes moves people. But sometimes, of course, it doesn’t.

Sahil, your colleagues at NBC, they polled a sort of broad political spectrum of Americans on COVID. What’d you find?

SAHIL KAPUR: Yeah, the tribal and partisan gap here was just extraordinary, Yamiche. We found that, just looking at Democrats and Republicans, among self-identified Democrats, 88 percent are fully vaccinated. Among self-identified Republicans, just 55 percent are fully vaccinated.

We looked at political ideologies. We looked at age, race, education levels. And we found that the single biggest predictor of not being vaccinated was being a Republican supporter of Donald Trump; the single biggest predictor of being vaccinated, a Biden voter. It’s extraordinary how vaccines – how this vaccine has simply become another part of the red and blue tribal culture war.

MS. ALCINDOR: And, I mean, it’s still, I think, sometimes astounding that we have to use the word tribal and culture wars amid a pandemic.

Ayesha, turning a bit, there’s also this issue of booster shots. We’re talking about people who don’t want to get the first shot. There are some folks who want to get their third shot, who are like sign me up now.


MS. ALCINDOR: What do we know about the Biden administration plans, though, when it comes to when they’re going to tell people that they should get a booster shot? There have been some reporting that it’s eight months since after your first vaccine dose. There are some that say it might be six months. What do we know?

MS. RASCOE: Well, so the administration right now is saying it’s eight months. That’s what their medical experts, the CDC, that’s what’s been recommended. Now, today Biden did kind of, you know, throw a little wrench into it because he was talking to the Israeli prime minister and he said, well, maybe we need to, you know, do it earlier; maybe five months, six months. But White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki afterwards clarified that, no, the White House still believes it should be eight months.

Of course, but bringing up the point of a booster shot is controversial because there are a lot of countries in the world that haven’t even gotten the first shots in. And so to have the U.S. getting booster shots is controversial. But at the same time, people say that it’s necessary, because in countries like Israel, where people are highly vaccinated, they have had a big outbreak. So that’s part of the reason why they say these boosters are needed.

MS. ALCINDOR: Boost – that’s – I think it’s a real dynamic to have kind of third shots versus other countries still trying to get it.

The other issue here, Yasmeen, is the origin of COVID. There’s now this new intelligence report that you were reporting on about whether or not we will ever really know where COVID came from, where COVID-19 came from. It says here that the report was inconclusive as of now. But what’s the significance of this report, and what did it say?

MS. ABUTALEB: So the key findings from that report were released today. And I think one of the most significant things that came of that is that the intelligence agencies pretty definitively concluded that this virus was not bio-engineered. Now, that was something that almost every scientist believed, that this was not bioengineered, that yes, it could have accidentally leaked from a lab, but there weren’t really many credible experts who thought it was deliberately engineered. And I think that coming from the intelligence agencies is actually quite significant. It doesn’t mean it will tamp down the conspiracy theories, because people are pretty entrenched in their views, but I think it was pretty remarkable that it came from the agencies. And the other thing was, they said, you know, short of additional new information or cooperation from China or some more information about where the animal source might be that they’re probably not going to get to an answer on this.

MS. ALCINDOR: Not going to get an answer on that. The other answer that we did get that’s related to COVID, not related to this report, Sahil, is eviction moratoriums, and it’s the economics of COVID. What does it mean now that the Supreme Court has struck down this eviction moratorium? I interviewed HUD secretary – I should say the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, for those who don’t live in D.C. – it’s HUD – who was really talking about this being a lifeline to people staying indoors amid the pandemic. What do we know about the impact of this SCOTUS decision?

MR. KAPUR: It’s going to be huge. It’s probably the end of the road for the eviction moratorium because we know, based on the Supreme Court decision, the president does not have unilateral authority to impose that moratorium again, and we also know, as we’ve known for weeks, that Congress does not have the votes to extend it at this point. Now, there’s no indication that that’s changed. It won’t even happen in the House. Democrats have a slim majority. They have enough defections that they can’t even do it themselves in a chamber where they don’t need any Republicans. And even if it did pass the House, it’s going nowhere in the Senate because of a thing called the filibuster. So they’re stuck. What they can do and what Speaker Pelosi had suggested to Democratic colleagues in a couple of letters recently that they will do is there are billions of dollars in unspent funds for housing and rental assistance, and there are questions as to why that money hasn’t gone out yet, why it’s been slow. I think they’re going to try to focus their energy now on speeding up the process of doing that.

Can I just add one quick thing also? On the Pfizer vaccine being fully authorized, I think we’re seeing increasingly not just a carrot approach but also a sticks approach to the vaccine. The carrot approach – you know, making it free, making it easily accessible, giving people money, ticket to a baseball game – that’s all been done. Now people are no longer welcome at their jobs if they, you know, don’t get the vaccine, in many cases. They’re not being allowed in restaurants and bars if they don’t get the vaccine. That stuff matters and it will move people, I think.

MS. ALCINDOR: I want to turn now to the questions from the viewers on COVID-19 and this crisis that we’re all living through. This week we asked Washington Week viewers to submit what you wanted to know about COVID.

Yasmeen, you’re up for most of these questions. (Laughs.) A viewer poses this question: Why isn’t more testing being done? Infected, asymptomatic, vaccinated people need to know when to quarantine so it stops spreading.

What’s your answer?

MS. ABUTALEB: It’s a great question. I was speaking with an expert today who said, you know, what’s happening on testing? The testing rates have gone so far down; we’re kind of where we were last fall when we were obsessively covering the testing numbers with the Trump administration and we were sort of going into this fall wave. I think testing really fell off in the spring when more people were getting vaccinated and there was this belief, because it was true with the variants we were dealing with at the time, that vaccinated people, you know, didn’t need to get tested if they came into contact with a confirmed case because the vaccines were so effective at preventing against even infection with those earlier variants. And there hasn’t really been that focus on testing like there was earlier this year and last year, even as the game has changed with the Delta variant, that vaccinated people do need to get tested if they come into contact with a confirmed case, that vaccinated people need to be aware, even if they’re asymptomatic, so that they’re not spreading it to others. So I think this is a really important question for us to report on and to answer because it’s not as easy as it should be to get a test, and I think that’s especially concerning with schools reopening as well.

MS. ALCINDOR: Another viewer poses this question: Quote, “If we are indeed to live with the COVID virus, what does the future look like?”

It’s a big question. (Laughs.) But I will say, Yasmeen, it’s the question I think about every time I think about you. Where are we going? (Laughs.)

MS. ABUTALEB: It’s a great question. I think – the short answer is we don’t know. We just don’t know yet. But I think it’s pretty clear at this point that COVID is going to be endemic. It’s something that we’re going to have to live with, and I think a lot of experts think it’s going to be something that we have to live with similar to the flu, where, you know, we do have cases of flu every year; we do have people who die from the flu every year, but it’s not necessarily a death sentence and getting it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be seriously ill or that you really need to be concerned. I think, you know, we’ll have to get shots every year at COVID; that’s what it’s looking like, especially with the boosters debate right now. We’ll have to continue to get tested and to quarantine when we might have it, but hopefully these vaccines and updates to the vaccines continue to be highly effective against preventing against hospitalization and death so that getting COVID is like getting another illness. But I do think there’s just so much we don’t know yet.

MS. ALCINDOR: So much we don’t know.

And lastly, Yasmeen, a viewer in West Palm Beach poses this question: Please discuss the suit brought by Florida parents against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ mask mandate and the measures local school districts are taking to defy him and why.

Of course, that governor’s saying that people should not implement mask mandates, that they shouldn’t be allowed to. What are the legal ramifications of these clashes, this viewer wants to know.

MS. ABUTALEB: Well, there is a big development today where a Florida judge said that the governor could not prevent schools from imposing mask mandates, so obviously these parents and the people who are opposed to what Ron DeSantis has been doing – and he’s not the only one; the Texas governor has been doing the same, you know, preventing mask mandates – have prevailed in court, so these schools should be able – in Florida, at least – should be able to move forward and put in place mask mandates. But the health implications of this are enormous. I mean, we’ve spoken to parents and we’ve heard from parents not just from Florida but in other states where schools might not have mask mandates who are terrified and genuinely struggling with what to do with their kids. They know their kids need to be back in the classroom, but without the mask mandates, it just makes it a very unsafe environment. So I think this is going to continue to play out. I think there are inevitably going to be outbreaks at these schools, especially the ones not imposing these basic public health measures, and you’ll see this debate evolve as you see outbreaks and kids getting sick. I mean, people are not going to have a lot of tolerance for that.

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, this is just – it’s an incredible situation and a heartbreaking situation when you think of parents struggling but also Americans all over the country struggling.

We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you so much to Yasmeen – I’ll give you a special thank you, Yasmeen, because you answered the most of these questions because you’re the expert here. Of course, thank you also to Sahil, to Ayesha for joining us and sharing your reporting. And make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a look at all things Washington.

I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.


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