Joe Biden has vowed to release the vast majority of Covid-19 vaccine doses when he takes office, reversing a Trump administration policy of holding back second jabs as Covid deaths surge across the US.
“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,” a Biden spokesperson said.
“He supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in American’s arms now”.
The comments have put the US president-elect at the centre of a heated debate about how to speed up a slow rollout of vaccines, after the US reported 4,000 deaths from Covid-19 in a single day for the first time.
More than 21m doses have been distributed across the US, but only about 6m people have received their first vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both vaccines authorised for use in the US comprise two doses.
The Trump administration’s strategy has been to hold back half of available doses to ensure the vaccinated get their second shot. Some states then held back half of their allotment of doses, meaning they effectively only distributed a quarter, according to people familiar with the matter.
But a Biden transition official said they believed manufacturers can produce enough vaccines to ensure people can get their second dose on schedule, while more people can get a first dose quickly. The US authorised the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine with a gap of 21 days between doses, and 28 days for the Moderna jab.
The UK is so concerned about getting as many people as possible the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine that it is leaving a longer gap between doses than has been tested in clinical trials.
But in the US, this approach has been rejected by the US Food and Drug Administration, which warned earlier this week that it could be “counterproductive” to public health. The Biden team has not suggested it would take that approach.
The official added that the Biden administration will use the Defense Production Act — a law which enables the White House to compel companies to make certain products — to produce supplies needed by vaccine makers.
The Trump administration has repeatedly floated using the DPA to aid vaccine developers, most recently ahead of expanding its deal with BioNTech/Pfizer. But Mr Trump has not invoked the act for the vaccine supply chain, only for other items in short supply, such as ventilators.
In a letter obtained by the Financial Times, eight governors from states including California and New York called on the leaders of the health department and Operation Warp Speed to release the extra doses.
“The failure to distribute these doses to states who request them is unconscionable and unacceptable,” they wrote.
The governors’ intervention comes after the federal government urged states to be more flexible with who could receive vaccines, rather than sticking strictly to the prioritisation guidelines.
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Washington