Joe Biden’s scientific advisers are to meet with vaccine makers in the coming days as the presidential transition remains stalled because of President Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that he lost the election.
A delayed hand-off is especially problematic during a public health crisis, the government’s top infectious disease expert said.
“Of course it would be better if we could start working with them,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been through multiple presidential transitions during 36 years of government service.
He likened the process to runners passing on the baton in a relay race. “You don’t want to stop and then give it to somebody,” he said. “You want to just essentially keep going.”
The president-elect’s outreach to the vaccine manufacturers comes as the coronavirus pandemic in the US has entered perhaps its most dangerous phase.
The seven-day rolling average for new daily cases stood at 145,400 on Saturday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
That means the US is adding about one million new cases a week and deaths averaged 820 a day as of Saturday, a 33% increase in just two weeks.
“We’re going to start those consultations this week,” said Mr Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain, citing Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies.
Pfizer’s announcement that preliminary data indicate its vaccine is 90% effective lifted financial markets last week and gave people worldwide hope that an end to the pandemic will be coming.
Mr Klain said Mr Biden’s experts also need a detailed understanding of distribution plans being finalised by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Pentagon.
“We need to be talking to them as quickly as possible,” Mr Klain said.
“It’s great to have a vaccine, but vaccines don’t save lives: vaccinations save lives. And that means you’ve got to get that vaccine into people’s arms all over this country. It’s a giant logistical project.”
Mr Fauci stressed the arrival of vaccines will not be like flipping a switch to return to normal life. The first doses will become available for people in high-risk groups later this year.
He said Americans will have to keep up preventive measures such as wearing masks, observing social distancing and frequently washing their hands well into next year.
“Everyone is sensitive to what we call ‘Covid fatigue’,” Dr Fauci said. “People are worn out about this. But we have got to hang in there a bit longer. … We have got to hang together on this.”
Other vaccine makers are also in the final phase of testing their formulations and Dr Fauci said he expects those vaccines will also be highly effective.
The government has launched a programme called “Operation Warp Speed,” backed by the White House, to quickly manufacture and distribute tens of millions of doses of vaccines.
The shots will be free to Americans and the goal is to have most people vaccinated by about this time next year. Many people will need two doses.
Initial access to the vaccine will be limited to high-priority groups such as hospital and nursing home workers.
A top Trump administration health official said 20 million doses could be available by the end of this month, and an additional 20 million by the end of the year.