Biden plans to release more Covid vaccine doses in break from Trump administration policy

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U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks as he announces his Justice Department nominees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., January 7, 2020.

Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

President-elect Joe Biden plans to release more doses of the Covid vaccines once he takes office, breaking from the Trump administration’s policy of holding reserve doses to ensure there’s enough for second shots and to account for manufacturing issues.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two shots 21 days apart and the Moderna vaccine requires two shots 28 days apart. Officials from President Donald Trump‘s vaccine program Operation Warp Speed have withheld half of the available doses to ensure they can administer second doses in a timely fashion.

Some public health specialists have advocated for releasing all available doses, because there’s some evidence of protection against Covid-19 after just the first dose and it’s likely that manufacturers will be able to meet the demand for second doses.

“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 spokesman for Biden’s transition team, told NBC News. “He will share additional details next week on how his Administration will begin releasing available doses when he assumes office on January 20th.”

CNN first reported the news.

The shift in policy comes after a group of eight governors, all Democrats, wrote to Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Gen. Gustave Perna, who oversees logistics for Operation Warp Speed, asking them to distribute “reserved doses” of the vaccines to states that are prepared to distribute them.

Nurse Laura Bailey draws the Moderna vaccine from the first batch of Moderna’s vaccine at Hartford hospital in Hartford, Connecticut on December 21, 2020.

Joseph Prezioso | AFP | Getty Images

“Our states are ready to work around the clock to ramp up distribution, get more shots in arms, and save more American lives. General Perna, as you have stated before, ‘a vaccine sitting on a shelf is not effective,'” the governors wrote in the letter. “We couldn’t agree with you more. That’s why we are asking for your help now. When we work together, we can end this pandemic and return to a life of normalcy sooner.”

Operation Warp Speed has argued that it’s necessary to withhold some available doses of the vaccines to ensure everyone who got their first dose will get their booster shot on schedule. Officials are also withholding some doses in reserve in case of manufacturing problems.

Representatives of the Department of Health and Human Services and Operation Warp Speed did not immediately return CNBC’s request for comment.

The initial rollout of the vaccines has been slower than expected, with the U.S. failing to hit the goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans in December, as federal officials had aimed for.

However, top health officials, including Fauci and Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, have said the pace will likely pick up this month. The rollout has already shown some signs of slowly gaining speed.

The U.S. administered more than 600,000 shots in 24 hours, the CDC reported Thursday. That’s the most in a one-day period so far, according to the agency’s data. More than 21.4 million doses have been distributed, according to the data, but just 5.9 million have been administered.

Amid criticism of a slow initial rollout, HHS officials are now urging states to move beyond the first tier of prioritization. Health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities are supposed to receive the vaccine first, according to guidance from the CDC. But HHS Secretary Alex Azar said earlier this week that states should open up to more old and vulnerable Americans if it will hasten the pace of the rollout.

Also adding to the pressure to quickly vaccinate is the arrival of a new strain of the virus. The new variant, known as B.1.1.7, which was first discovered in the United Kingdom, has now been found in at least seven states. While it does not appear to cause people to become more severely sick, CDC officials say they believe it spreads more easily. That could make the outbreak even worse and quickly overwhelm hospitals, CDC officials said last week.

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