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With COVID Vaccines on the Horizon, U.S. Urged to Help Ensure Equitable Distribution Across Globe

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As the U.S. COVID-19 death toll nears 250,000, drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna have both announced promising vaccine trial results showing over 90% effectiveness in preventing illness. But officials and health experts warn widespread distribution of a vaccine for the coronavirus — which has killed 1.2 million people across the globe — will be tremendously difficult to store and distribute. Vaccine researcher Dr. Saad Omer calls the recent news “reassuring” but says drugmakers need to be much more transparent about their data and issue more than just press releases. “There should be a little bit more detail, and it should be in the form of some scientific report,” says Dr. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and professor of infectious diseases at Yale School of Medicine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As coronavirus cases soar across the country and around the globe, the drugmaker Moderna announced Monday its coronavirus vaccine is nearly 95% effective. This comes after pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced a vaccine last week with 90% effectiveness. As the virus has now killed at least 1.2 million people worldwide, the companies say they could offer 20 million doses of the vaccine to people in the United States by sometime next month. But officials warn the widespread distribution of a vaccine for coronavirus will be a tremendously difficult and lengthy task. The World Health Organization’s immunization director, Katherine O’Brien, said Monday that discovering a vaccine was, quote, “like building a base camp on Mount Everest.”

This comes as the United States recorded nearly 167,000 new cases on Monday, the third-highest daily toll of the pandemic. Nearly 800 people died of COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the official U.S. toll to nearly 247,000.

For more on the latest vaccine news, we’re joined from New Haven, Connecticut, by Dr. Saad Omer. He is director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, professor of infectious diseases at Yale School of Medicine and a vaccine researcher.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, let’s talk about some numbers. You had this amazing announcement last week by Pfizer/BioNTech that their vaccine is 90% effective. That’s followed this week by Moderna’s vaccine, Moderna saying the vaccine is 94.5% effective. These are astounding figures. But then I want to talk about two. That’s how we got this information: by two press releases, one from Moderna and one from Pfizer. So, Dr. Saad Omer, this is unusual, the way this vaccine information is coming out. These are not peer-reviewed. They are released by corporations. As soon as they are released, their stocks skyrocket. How can we trust this? What should we understand? What do you understand?

SAAD OMER: So, the news that is out there is reassuring, but you’re right: We need a little bit more information, and we need a little bit more transparency. I can understand that they have — they want to get the information out right away due to insider trading concerns and whatever. But soon after that, there should be a little bit more detail, and it should be in the form of some scientific report, ideally of a preprint, if not a full, peer-reviewed report, and so on and so forth. Even if it’s preliminary data, I think a little bit more could be released, rather than a press release.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what kind of encouragement are you taking from this? How significant? And what about these two tests, these remarkable findings? And what does it mean for further testing? Who has to approve this next, how fast these become available, even as other vaccines, we understand — AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson — are nearing announcement, as well?

SAAD OMER: So, this is certainly good news. And I don’t think there’s much of a practical difference between a 90% efficacy or 95% efficacy in preliminary results. So, that’s one thing. The best news is that for the first time it has been shown that there can be a vaccine against this coronavirus, against SARS-CoV-2. So, just the establishment of that proof of principle that an effective vaccine can be created, by any method, is a big deal.

The second thing is that the spike protein, which is targeted by both of these vaccines, is — which is the target. We have put most, if not all — actually, not all, but most of our eggs in the basket of targeting the spike protein. That’s reassuring that two vaccines targeting that seem to be working.

The third thing is that the mRNA technology, both of them, seem to be working. So, these are good news. This is part of good news. There’s a lot to be known. For example, we need to know how long it’s going to work. We need a little bit more detailed safety data.

And the way it is likely to be approved is it’s likely to be — or authorized, it’s likely to go to the FDA now. So, both the companies have indicated they’re going to go to the FDA within the next few weeks. And FDA has had a little bit of a course correction in the past four, five weeks, where they have been more open about following the mainstream process, and, you know, frankly, due to the pushback from the career folks there. But that is reassuring, and it’s likely that then these vaccines will be — the data from these vaccines, even more detailed data, will be presented to the advisory committee, the independent advisory committee, of the FDA and FDA itself, and then a decision will be made.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what’s needed for distribution. We understand that the Pfizer/BioNTech double vaccine — you need two of them — has to be kept at subzero temperatures. Many states are deeply concerned in the United States, not to mention countries around the world — and you’re deeply involved with both as you’re involved with the World Health Organization — do not have the special freezers that are needed. Moderna is different, though it still needs freezers.

SAAD OMER: Yes. So, we call that ultra-cold chain requirement, for something like what would be required for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. And that is a problem. That is a — actually, I would say it is a challenge. It’s not unsurmountable, because the Ebola vaccine was distributed in a lower-income country situation using ultra-cold chain. So it’s not impossible, but it’s a pretty substantial challenge. And WHO has been focusing on this in anticipation, in terms of country preparedness. But, look, preparing, you know, the world is not easy.

Similarly, in the U.S., I wish we had been planning a little bit — we had started planning a little bit earlier. But the CDC has released a few documents, has been working with several states to get us online as a country to prepare for vaccines that require ultra-cold chain. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to pose challenges. It’s going to pose substantial challenges, especially, my concern is, in terms of equity. So, people who have access to facilities, both physical and otherwise, that have these kinds of requirements, have — you know, are different from people who don’t have access to these facilities, and so on and so forth. So, it is not unsurmountable, but we need to work hard towards it.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what this means for who has access and who doesn’t, both in the United States, but also around the world. You’re involved with the World Health Organization. Can you talk about how these vaccines will be distributed? Already, the most wealthy countries in the world, haven’t they bought up the vast majority of these vaccines in advance, ordered them?

SAAD OMER: Yes and no. So, there are two mechanisms. So, individual countries are doing their own deals, etc., those who can afford it, with these vaccine companies. But then there’s this mechanism called COVAX Facility, which has like two subgroups. One is that you can buy — anyone, any rich or poor country, can buy into that facility and say, “Look, you are backing nine vaccines,” for example. “You’re backing a set of vaccines. And whichever is successful, we don’t know.” If, for example, Brazil or South Africa makes a bet, if you will, on one vaccine and it doesn’t work, then they are in trouble. So, they pool that risk through that part.

But then there’s another component of it which says that countries that do not afford — that cannot afford this vaccine can either do it through their resources or a combination of their own resources and aid and a World Bank loan, etc. So, the idea is that this facility can make this vaccine available to the world, to a lot of countries of the world. But even at that, you know, it’s not too ambitious. It says that, at least in the initial phase, it will focus on 20% of supply for each country. And so, that is a group that is making efforts towards it.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has been conspicuous by its absence in terms of backing that COVAX Facility. And so, hopefully, that will change. Hopefully, there will be a focus on the fact that, you know, it is in our interest to make sure that everyone is disease-free with this virus, because it is a pandemic. It impacts everyone. But beyond this enlightened self-interest, we should be — the U.S. has been a leader in global health. It played a substantial role in smallpox eradication, for example. And it played a substantial role in the efforts — the ongoing efforts for polio eradication. So, it is pretty surprising and disheartening that the U.S. is absent from COVAX and COVAX Facility.

AMY GOODMAN: So, again, talking about not just because people think it’s fair or that everyone in the world should get this vaccine, but the self-interest, I’m looking at a piece in Medical Express that says “researchers found that the rich nation stockpiling scenario reduced Covid-19 deaths by 33% globally. The fair-share approach prevented 61%.” And as we know, this is a highly infectious disease. If one part of the world is infectious, we are all threatened.

SAAD OMER: Exactly. It’s smart disease-control strategy that we don’t go alone. It’s understandable for every country to make sure that its own population is protected, but that is not a zero-sum game. That also means that we don’t have to just look inwards. We are — again, we have been leaders in global health, and we have to do our part in making sure that the rest of the world also gets this vaccine.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Saad Omer, you’re at Yale. Several of your colleagues are on the Biden coronavirus task force. President Trump has refused to cooperate in the standard transition from one president to another. This is not just a point of politeness. This is a point of what happens in a case like this, where you had President Trump once saying he considered himself a war president taking on coronavirus. Of course, since then, he’s said it’s like a small flu, and has not been to a coronavirus task force, I think, in something like five months. But what does it mean that this task force that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and President-elect Biden have put together cannot get information from the Trump administration in terms of moving forward to vaccinate, if possible, much of the population of the United States?

SAAD OMER: That’s unfortunate, because there are things that need to be coordinated with the federal agencies. My hope is that agencies like the CDC and FDA and BARDA, a somewhat obscure agency within the Health and Human Services that was created in the early 2000s, with bipartisan support, to develop these kinds of countermeasures and vaccines, etc. — and, actually, by the way, played a huge role, or a substantial role, not as much as I would have liked but still a significant role, in this pandemic, as well. So, these kinds of agencies need to be on board with the response, going forward. And not just on board, they need to enhance their response, and there needs to be coordination sort of at the federal level. All of that would require a smooth handover, access to career professionals, and so on and so forth. So, it is unfortunate. It doesn’t mean that the incoming administration cannot do its homework entirely. A lot of engagement can happen with states and other entities, scientific entities, professional, medical associations, etc. But they need — they should have access to the federal system.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about patents. In this time of this massive threat to human life around the world, with the developed world expecting to get the vast majority of the vaccines as they become available, I’m looking at The Wall Street Journal, which says, “If the developed nations don’t relent, South Africa is prepared to try to force the issue through a rare contested vote at the [World Trade Organization],” which would challenge patents of these large pharmaceutical manufacturers.

SAAD OMER: Look, I think there are already mechanisms to devolve, sort of under license, some production around the world. And that has to happen. The world’s biggest producers, by volume, are not in the Western world. The biggest producers are, for example, in India and China. And so, it would be a tragedy if intellectual property becomes a bottleneck. I think what is reassuring on that side, that I have heard some noise about, sort of under license, allowing some of the manufacturers, you know, in India and China, and specifically India, to scale up production. And India supplies a lot of the vaccine that is used in low-income countries, well beyond India itself. So, I hope that happens. I hope we do not, not just have barriers due to intellectual property, but we don’t delay the program. You know, a delayed vaccination program inherently is an inequitable program, because it exposes the most vulnerable to these kinds of diseases and infections more than those who are more privileged.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your quick response on why the coronavirus is increasing exponentially in the richest country in the world, right here in the United States?

SAAD OMER: Unfortunately, it’s all about implementation and leadership. And this is not a political statement. It’s at various levels of the government that this has happened. So, that’s part of it.

But on top of it is the idea that, you know, when the pandemic started, the respiratory virus season in the U.S. was waning, and so we never saw the optimal time during which these kinds of viruses, not just coronaviruses, transmit most efficiently. And there are different factors. The role of each of these factors is unclear, for other respiratory viruses, as well. But it is postulated, and it is actually known, it’s a combination of these factors, including crowding indoors, including humidity and temperature, etc., that facilitates transmission. And so, now we are entering that season with a suboptimal baseline, and we are seeing these record numbers.

AMY GOODMAN: And the effect of —

SAAD OMER: So, it is highly unfortunate.

AMY GOODMAN: The effect of Dr. Atlas, a top coronavirus adviser, telling people to rise up against health regulations, what this means?

SAAD OMER: Yeah, no, it is — I think we should all be following — and it’s not that hard. As we have known, as the evidence evolved, as we have known about masks and their utility in preventing this outbreak, the evidence emerged, evolved. It’s out there. You can have a difference of opinion about tactics, but the big strategy things, like testing, like social distancing — and nobody at this point is advocating outright lockdowns. People are advocating for more fine-tuned approaches. And it really surprises me that even with this kind of an approach, there’s this reaction. You know, even something like a mask, that doesn’t impose on people’s freedoms, etc., people are making these kinds of unfounded statements.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Saad Omer, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, professor of infectious diseases at Yale School of Medicine.

When we come back, we talk to the president of the National Nurses United about how, nine months into the pandemic, many hospitals are failing to provide adequate PPE to doctors and nurses, and so much more. Back in 30 seconds.

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