A day after the U.S. hit another bleak milestone in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—a record 4,085 people nationwide died from Covid-19 on Thursday alone—eight governors pleaded with the Trump administration to immediately release to states more vaccine doses that are being held in reserve.
Both of the coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States—one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech another by Moderna—require two doses at specific intervals. The outgoing administration's strategy is hold back at least half of its supply to ensure people receive both doses.
Citing the rising number of deaths across the country, the Democratic governors' letter (pdf) says that "the failure to distribute these doses to states who request them is unconscionable and unacceptable. We demand that the federal government begin distributing these reserved doses to states immediately."
The letter is signed by Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gavin Newsom of California, Laura Kelly of Kansas, JB Pritzker of Illinois, Tim Walz of Minnesota, Andrew Cuomo of New York, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Tony Evers of Wisconsin. It is addressed to Alex Azar and Gustave F. Perna, secretary and chief operating officer of the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department, respectively.
The federal government currently has upwards of 50% of vaccine doses held back for unknown reasons. I join 7 fellow governors in demanding @HHSGov distribute them to the states. We're ready to ramp up distribution and save more American lives. Read the full letter: pic.twitter.com/rhoGTuyTpy
— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) January 7, 2021
Referencing President Donald Trump's widely criticized official coronavirus response, the governers write that "we very much appreciate the partnership with Operation Warp Speed (OWS) and are grateful for the vaccines received to date, but our states and residents need more vaccines now."
As the letter explains:
In December, OWS announced agreements with both Pfizer and Moderna to acquire an additional 100 million vaccine doses from each company, bringing the combined allocations expected to the U.S. government to 400 million doses by the second quarter of the year. These agreements, combined with the expected emergency use authorizations of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca later this year, should give you the utmost confidence that the manufacturing pipeline is robust, safe, and capable of protecting a majority of the America public in the coming year.
The governors add that "our states are ready to work around the clock to ramp up distribution, get more shots in arms, and save more American lives."
So far, more than 17.5 million doses of various vaccines have been administered across 38 countries, Bloomberg reported Thursday. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.25 million have been administered of the 21.4 million doses distributed throughout the United States.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted during a Friday press briefing that "there's a clear problem that low- and most middle-income countries are not receiving the vaccine yet," because "rich countries have bought up the majority of the supply of multiple vaccines."
Experts at the United Nations agency also announced on Friday that although an interval of 21 to 28 days between doses is recommended for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, "the interval between doses may be extended up to 42 days (6 weeks), on the basis of currently available clinical trial data."
Acknowledging that "a number of countries face exceptional circumstances of vaccine supply constraints combined with a high disease burden," WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunization said this "pragmatic approach" could be considered as a response to "exceptional epidemiological circumstances."
The governors' letter also came as CNN exclusively reported Friday that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will aim to release nearly all vaccine doses on hand when he is sworn in this month—a shift in strategy that would likely increase availability but could risk shortages of second doses considering current production levels.
This is what real leadership looks like.
— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) January 8, 2021
"The president-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible. He supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans' arms now," TJ Ducklo, a spokesperson for Biden's transition, told CNN. "He will share additional details next week on how his administration will begin releasing available doses when he assumes office on January 20th."
According to CNN:
A transition official said the Biden team believes that vaccine manufacturers will be able to produce enough second doses in a timely fashion while administering first doses to more Americans. Biden's team plans to use the Defense Production Act to produce vaccine materials and other supplies in order to ensure there's enough vaccine for both doses.
The transition official added that the Biden team may hold back a small amount of doses in case of unforeseen circumstances. The Trump administration also does this—in addition to holding back the second doses—in the event of incidents such as shipment errors or vaccine spoilage.
While the United States is seeing a record number of daily deaths and hospitalizations related to Covid-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned in a Thursday interview with NPR that "we believe things will get worse as we get into January," partly as a result of holiday travel.
Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and will be Biden's chief medical adviser, added that the incoming administration should and plans "to really put a lot of effort into making sure the rollout of the vaccine program accelerates."
As for the more contagious variant of the virus that was first identified in the United Kingdom but has also been found in the U.S., Fauci said that "this just underscores the need to adhere to the public health measures that would prevent the spread of any virus" and "it's serious enough we have to pay attention to it."
Preliminary research released Friday suggests that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine works against a mutation found in two more contagious variants of the virus that are rapidly spreading in the U.K. and South Africa. Vaccines developed by Moderna as well as AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford are undergoing similar tests.
Calls for the Trump administration to reconsider its vaccine distribution strategy come amid demands to immediately impeach the president and remove him from office for inciting Wednesday's violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which health experts warn was also "a textbook potential superspreader" event.