Feds Say More COVID Vax Doses on the Way; Variants Not a Worry (Yet)

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WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials sought to assure the public Wednesday that COVID-19 vaccine shipments will increase soon, and that current vaccines should be able to accommodate most of the variants that have arisen.

“When you’re looking at the U.K. variant, what we’re seeing is very slight — if any impact — on vaccine-induced antibodies and very little impact on anything else, so we’re covered with that,” Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Biden’s chief medical advisor, said during an online reporter briefing.

“Things get a bit more problematic … with what we’re seeing on the dominant one in South Africa,” he continued. “In that regard, there is a moderate diminution — namely a multi-fold diminution — in the in vitro neutralization by vaccine-induced antibodies. However — and this is an important ‘however’ — it still is well within the cushion of protection … That’s the reason why you’ve seen announcements that actually the vaccines we’re using are still effective.”

“However, given that as a fact now, we have to be concerned looking forward at what the further evolution of this might be,” he added.

Looking to the Future

Regarding the monoclonal antibody treatments, “they are more seriously inhibited in the sense of impact on their efficacy by this South African strain. That’s the reason why there will be attempts to develop other antibodies that might be able to avert this particular problem. So looking forward, what we plan to do in collaboration with the companies is to develop boosts that would use the same platform, but that would incorporate a particular immunogen that would address these particular variants. For that reason, we will always want to be a step or two ahead of what might be a problem in the future.”

Fauci noted that “RNA viruses mutate all the time; that’s what they do. There are very few … that you get one that has a functional relevancy to it, with greater transmissibility.” Along with the CDC getting more real-time sequence genomic surveillance, “The NIH will be collaborating with CDC in looking what the functional characteristics are. For example, we’ll be monitoring in real time the effect of antibodies we produce with current vaccines and future vaccines as to what effect they have on the ability to neutralize these mutants” and if necessary, making a new version of the vaccine to address a particular mutation.

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“Case rates remain extraordinarily high, and now is the time to remain vigilant,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD. (Photo courtesy White House Zoom meeting)

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, gave some statistics on COVID-19 prevalence, noting that the U.S. has officially documented 25.1 million COVID-19 cases through January 25, but that the 7-day average has decreased by 21% to 166,292 cases per day, down from the previous week’s average of 209,377. New hospital admissions also decreased by 15% to about 13,000 cases per day. “However, over 78,000 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of January 24,” she said.

“Though I’m encouraged by these trends, case rates remain extraordinarily high, and now is the time to remain vigilant,” said Walensky. “If we continue on the current trajectory, the CDC predicts 479,000 to 514,000 COVID-19 deaths will be reported by Feb. 20, 2021. But if we’re united in action, we can continue to turn things around.”

Progress on Vaccine Distribution

She also updated the progress on vaccine distribution, noting that daily vaccine doses are continuing to rise to more than 1.6 million doses per day over the past week, with a total of more than 23.5 million administered so far. Despite people’s concerns about anaphylactic reactions, “let me be clear — these are rare, treatable outcomes, and the COVID-19 vaccines are safe,” she said. “The risk of getting sick is much higher than risk of allergy or anaphylaxis from the vaccine.”

Walensky also clarified her agency’s guidance regarding the timing and type of vaccine doses. “The CDC still recommends people still get second dose as close to the recommended interval as possible — 3 weeks for the Pfizer vaccine and 4 weeks for the Moderna vaccine,” she said. “However, we also know that life can get in the way and that some of those doses may be missed in the best time window. In those rare circumstances, the second dose can be given up to 6 weeks after the first.”

In addition, she said, while the vaccines aren’t interchangeable, “however, it’s also true that in extremely rare circumstances, people may not remember or have documentation of which first dose they received. In these extremely rare situations, we have said that any available mRNA COVID-19 vaccine may be administered as a second dose if people are unaware of which first dose they received.”

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“Right now, we’re facing two constraining factors –getting enough supply quickly enough, and the ability to administer vaccines quickly once they are produced and sent out to sites,” said Andy Slavitt, senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team. (Photo courtesy White House Zoom meeting)

Andy Slavitt, senior advisor to the new White House COVID-19 Response Team, outlined some distribution problems. “Right now, we’re facing two constraining factors — getting enough supply quickly enough, and the ability to administer vaccines quickly once they are produced and sent out to the sites,” he said, cautioning that “it will be months before everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.”

So far, “we have delivered 47 million doses to states and long-term care facilities, and administered about 24 million doses,” he said. “Any stockpile that may have existed previously no longer exists … Our practice is to maintain a rolling inventory of 2 to 3 days of supply” in case of a shortfall. The situation is very uneven, “with places in the country with not enough vaccines, and places with vaccines they’re not using yet.” He urged Congress to pass Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which includes money to hire vaccinators and to administer the vaccines.

Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, the chair of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, discussed plans to make sure the vaccines were equitably distributed. “COVID-19 is leaving a terrible imprint on far too many communities,” she said. “It’s essential that we collect data for the hardest-hit communities.”

“We will be announcing members of this task force soon, as President Biden is adamant they hit the ground running,” she said. The administration is starting with a few actions already, including eliminating all out-of-pocket costs for vaccines, removing structural barriers to vaccine access in underserved communities — for example, by making sure vaccines are convenient and accessible — and ensuring transportation and paid time off are available, she said.

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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