An official with the US covid-19 vaccine initiative says anyone in the country who wants a vaccine will be able to have it by June, seven months from now.
The confident projection was made by retired Lieutenant General Paul Ostrowski, director of supply, production, and distribution for Operation Warp Speed, during an appearance on MSNBC on Monday, November 30.
“A hundred percent of Americans that want the vaccine will have had the vaccine by that point in time,” said Ostrowksi, adding that the US would secure more than 300 million doses to make it happen.
The prediction, if it proves true, could signal a way out of the pandemic, but it also foreshadows a coming period of global vaccine haves and have-nots. In a statement, the World Health Organization said it believes vaccinations should be prioritized for those at high risk, of infection or dying, wherever they are, rather than vaccinating “entire populations of some countries while everyone else is waiting in line.”
The health agency, based in Geneva, is participating in a plan to buy and distribute vaccines to almost 200 counties, half of them poor ones, but it says it thinks population-level vaccination will only occur in 2022. “We’re going to see very short supplies of vaccines over the next six months and it is going to take a year to even begin to cover 15 to 20% of the world’s population,” the WHO said.
So far, two genetic vaccines, one from Pfizer and one from Moderna Pharmaceuticals, are pending authorization by the US Food and Drug Administration following dramatic results which showed they prevented about 95% of covid-19 cases.
While supplies of those two vaccines will be limited in the coming months, the US has purchased a large part of Pfizer’s initial supply, and all of Moderna’s first 100 million doses. Together, the two firms are projecting they will have enough vaccine to immunize a billion people by the end of 2021.
It is unclear if the June projection by the Operation Warp Speed official referred to only those two vaccines, or if hitting the summer target would require the authorization of a third vaccine. One frontrunner, made by AstraZeneca, is easier to manufacture in large quantities (the US has contracted 300 million doses) but initial results suggest it is less effective and errors in its trial could delay a final answer.
A spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Services said Ostrowski’s remark was based “on the best assessment of available vaccine doses” but didn’t clarify which companies’ products were considered.
Some greeted the Warp Speed claim of widely available vaccinations by June with skepticism, noting previous false promises from the US administration, including that the pandemic would be over by Easter, then by Memorial Day, as well as President Donald Trump’s promise in March that “anybody who wants a test can get a test.” In reality there were shortfalls of testing equipment and long waits for results.
Topher Spiro, vice president of health policy at the Center for American Progress, tweeted that the Warp Speed claim is “not true.” Spiro predicted a shortage of syringes and needles, and lack of funding for the mass vaccination program, in parking lots or community centers, he thinks will be necessary. “You can’t vaccinate hundreds of millions of people at doctors’ offices and pharmacies” in a short period, Spiro posted on Twitter.
Although the covid-19 vaccine campaign will be unprecedented in many ways, the medical industry is able to reach great masses of people with inoculations. Each year, for instance, about half of Americans receive a flu shot.
It’s not clear how many people will sign up to get a covid-19 vaccine, and widespread “vaccine refusal” could end up making it easier for Warp Speed to meet its promise of June supplies for any “that want” the vaccine. According to a poll in October by Gallup, of 2,985 adults, only six in 10 Americans said they would agree to be vaccinated with an FDA-approved vaccine.
Other experts, however, said they think a June target is realistic. “I think they will have a vaccine in America, but the whole world will not,” says Mark Emalfarb, CEO of a company, Dyadic, involved in manufacturing vaccines. “If we want to travel between countries, we need to vaccinate most of the world, or all of it.”
Emalfarb says he anticipates public confusion as people try to weight the plusses and minuses of each vaccine, in the event they have a choice which to take. “We are going to have a smorgasbord of different vaccines, because none of these guys can make enough,” he says.
Many hope a vaccine will end the pandemic, but for the foreseeable future, other public health measures will still be needed to suppress the spread of the virus. Given rampant levels of infection in the US, estimates are that 50 million Americans have already caught the virus. By June, it’s possible that number could double again to a third of the country’s population.
The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden has said it wants to spend $25 billion on vaccine manufacturing and distribution to “guarantee” every American gets a cost-free shot. In the recent MSNBC interview, Ostrowski said he briefed the incoming Biden team during the week of Thanksgiving.