AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration has given the go-ahead to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. That means the company can start shipping the inoculation to hospitals around the country. People in nursing homes and assisted living are also being given priority. This is the first of what is expected to be several vaccines for use in the United States to stem a pandemic that's killed nearly 300 people in the U.S. alone.
Joining us now with the latest is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, are you there?
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Yes, I am. Hi.
CORNISH: Start by telling us about this evening's announcement.
HARRIS: Well, it had seemed like a foregone conclusion ever since Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, submitted an application for emergency use on November 20. The Food and Drug Administration vastly accelerated its review process, but it didn't want to cut corners, which is why it has taken a few weeks. In the meantime, other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have given the thumbs-up to the vaccine.
CORNISH: Did those clearances outside the U.S. lead to political pressure here?
HARRIS: That's always been a concern, especially when President Trump was seemingly keeping - promising a vaccine before Election Day. But even when he lost the election, it seems the White House has continued to lean on the FDA. The Washington Post was the first to report today that the FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, was told to authorize the vaccine today or to resign.
But clearly, the decision was going to come soon. This morning, Hahn and Alex Azar, who's the secretary of Health and Human Services, announced that it would be authorizing the Pfizer vaccine very soon.
CORNISH: What happens next?
HARRIS: With this emergency use authorization, Pfizer can begin shipping 2.9 million doses of the vaccine to designated hospitals and long-term care facilities around the country, and hospitals can start administering the drug to medical staff and people who work and live in nursing homes and the like. You know, those people face a high risk of COVID because they are in close contact with people with the active disease. The first batch of vaccine won't be enough to vaccinate the entire workforce by any means, but, you know, the federal government has worked out a distribution scheme, so more shipments will soon follow.
CORNISH: Can you talk more about that distribution? I mean, how quickly could a vaccine distribution effort ramp up?
HARRIS: Well, that depends on how quickly the vaccine can be produced, and that's not entirely predictable. For every person who gets the first shot, the government is holding in reserve a second dose. People need to get that second injection in three weeks for this particular vaccine.
There clearly isn't enough of the Pfizer vaccine to go around, but by - a second vaccine by Moderna seems to be close at hand. The FDA's vaccine advisory committee meets next Thursday, as a matter of fact, to evaluate that product. And if it is cleared as quickly as the similar Pfizer vaccine was, it could be distributed in a week or two. And all told, the government expects about 20 million first doses to go out by the end of December.
CORNISH: Can you just remind us again the differences in these vaccines in terms of the ability to distribute them, right?
HARRIS: Right. The one that's going out now requires a more deep refrigeration than the Moderna vaccine, but they both have to be handled with a fair amount of care. And there's a huge system that has been set up to handle those vaccines. So it really appears as though they'll be in a position to distribute them. That does not seem to be the issue. I mean, there are going to be snags and bumps along the way, but worrying about, you know, how cold a particular vaccine is is probably not the biggest concern right now.
CORNISH: That's NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris. Thank you.
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