Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Portage, Michigan on Sunday, December 13, 2020. AP/Morry Gash/Pool
Federal officials promised earlier this week to stop stockpiling second doses of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, and instead use them to get more people their first shots.
That statement prompted many states to open up vaccine distribution to a wider swath of the public this week.
But a new report from the Washington Post says that the government hasn’t actually been holding back any vaccines for second doses, and they’ve already been sent out.
As a result, many states won’t be getting any extra vaccines in their next shipments to meet the higher demand.
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America’s vaccine cupboards are bare.
Federal officials – who promised on Tuesday they were starting to release more doses of COVID-19 vaccines to states – don’t actually have any surplus to give out, according to a new bombshell report from the Washington Post.
The government said it had been previously stockpiling more than 50% of vaccine inventory, saving up enough second doses of COVID-19 shots from Pfizer and Moderna to ensure that everyone who had gotten one shot would be able to get their second booster on time, no matter what. (Both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines are given in two doses, administered three or four weeks apart.)
But, in fact, the Trump administration was already “taking second doses directly off the manufacturing line,” according to the Post’s report.
That grab-and-go strategy – of shipping out vaccine doses just as quickly as they were being manufactured – began in December for Pfizer’s vaccine, and the same has been true for Moderna’s shots since last weekend, according to the Post.
A failed stockpileUS Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Pete Marovich/Getty Images
After President-elect Biden promised last Friday that his administration would start releasing all available vaccine doses when he takes office next week, the Trump administration also announced it was pivoting to the same plan.
The federal government also seemed to suggest that by releasing more doses in this way, the country would be able to vaccinate more people. US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recommended on Tuesday that every state should expand its vaccine distribution parameters to include everyone 65 years old and older, as well as younger people with comorbidities.
“We’ve had so much success with quality and predictable manufacturing and almost flawless distribution of the vaccine,” Azar told ABC on Tuesday. “We had been holding back second doses as a safety stock. We now believe that our manufacturing is predictable enough that we can ensure second doses are available for people from ongoing production, so everything is now available.”
It’s something that many public health experts have been suggesting is a good idea for a while now.
“We’re in a pandemic, where things are awful,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of public health at Brown University, told Insider. “We can make some hedges that say we should hold some doses back, but assume that our production is not going to completely collapse for months and months.”
But states are already complaining they don’t have enough shots, and without more vaccines, it’s unclear how their distribution can expand.
States, begging for more vaccines, have been told the stock is emptyRN Courtney Senechal carried a refrigerated box of Moderna Covid-19 vaccines for use at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Massachusetts on December 24, 2020. Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images
At least nine state governors, desperate to get more shots into the arms of their citizens, also sent a letter to Washington last week, saying “our states and residents need more vaccines now.”
“According to publicly reported information, the federal government currently has upwards of 50% of currently produced vaccines held back by the administration for reasons unknown,” the letter said, citing media reports.
But state and federal officials who’ve actually been briefed on vaccine dose distribution plans now tell the Washington Post that there is no such surplus, and that most vaccine allocations to states next week will be flat.
One notable exception is Connecticut, a state that has been vaccinating its citizens at one of the fastest clips in the country so far. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont tweeted Thursday that his state will be getting an extra 50,000 doses next week, “as a reward for being among the fastest states” to vaccinate.
Nearly 30 million vaccines distributed, but fewer than 10 million have gone in armsDr. Jason Smith showed off his bandage after getting vaccinated at the University of Louisville Hospital in Kentucky. Jon Cherry/Getty Images
Operation Warp Speed said on Thursday that nearly 30 million vaccine doses have been distributed to states so far. But shots in boxes do not equate to vaccinations in arms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 10 million American adults have begun receiving their shots, since vaccinations began in mid-December.
“It’s a crisis,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine who is also developing a low-cost COVID-19 vaccine, told Insider.
“Our only hope now – given how much this virus is accelerating and causing deaths of 4,000 a day – is we need to vaccinate the American people at the rate of 1 million to 2 million per day for every day from now until the end of August, and we’re not even close to that.”
The US Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
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