The US government’s top infectious disease expert is warning that a lack of coordination between outgoing and incoming administrations puts American lives at greater risk from the rapidly spreading coronavirus.
President-elect Joe Biden’s top advisers said on Sunday that President Donald Trump’s refusal to begin a transition could jeopardise the battle against the pandemic and inhibit vaccine distribution planning.
The number of US coronavirus cases passed 11 million on Sunday, a million more new cases than a week ago and the fastest increase since the pandemic began. The number of COVID-19 patients in American hospitals also has reached an all-time high.
“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.”
Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the election means the Biden team lacks a clear picture of the groundwork within the government for a mass vaccination campaign that will last the better part of next year, says Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain.
“We now have the possibility … of a vaccine starting perhaps in December or January,” Klain said.
“There are people at HHS making plans to implement that vaccine. Our experts need to talk to those people as soon as possible so nothing drops in this change of power we’re going to have on January 20th.”
Most dangerous phase
Klain said consultations with drug-makers, including Pfizer and others, will begin this week.
Pfizer’s announcement last week that preliminary data indicate its vaccine is 90-percent effective lifted financial markets and gave people worldwide hope an end to the pandemic will be coming.
Biden’s outreach to vaccine manufacturers comes as the coronavirus pandemic in the US has entered perhaps its most dangerous phase. The US is adding about one million new cases a week, and deaths averaged 820 a day as of Saturday – a 33-percent increase in just two weeks.
Klain said in some ways the more critical issue is getting 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,” he 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.”
Fauci stressed the arrival of vaccines would not be like flipping a switch to return to normal life. The first doses will only be made available for people in high-risk groups later this year and Fauci said Americans will have to keep up preventive measures such as wearing masks, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing well into next year.
“Everyone is sensitive to what we call ‘COVID fatigue’,” 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 Fauci said he expects those vaccines will also be highly effective.
The US 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.
The states of Michigan and Washington on Sunday imposed sweeping new restrictions on gatherings, including halting indoor restaurant service, to slow the spread of the virus.
“We are in a very dangerous period,” said Dr Michael Osterholm, a member of Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
Unless action is taken now “we’re going to see these numbers grow substantially”, Osterholm warned. “Our future’s in our hands.”