Mike Pence says US Covid-19 vaccine distribution could begin mid-December

US Vice-President Mike Pence told governors they will have the final say on vaccine distribution as the "ultimate arbiters" in their states. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - United States Vice-President Mike Pence told governors on Monday (Nov 30) that distribution of a coronavirus vaccine could begin by the third week of December, signalling that US regulators will swiftly approve an emergency authorisation for the first shots.

"We strongly believe the vaccine distribution process could begin the week of Dec 14," Mr Pence told governors, according to a summary of the call provided by the office of Washington Governor Jay Inslee. "The American people deserve to know the cavalry is on the way."

Mr Pence told governors they will have the final say on vaccine distribution as the "ultimate arbiters" in their states, according to the summary.

Moderna Inc joined Pfizer Inc on Monday in requesting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issue an emergency use authorisation for its shot. Both vaccines are better than 90 per cent effective, according to preliminary results of clinical trials, though their distribution challenges include requiring two shots.

Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar, FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, and Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also participated in the call.

An FDA advisory panel is scheduled to meet on Dec 10 to discuss the vaccines.

Mr Azar told governors that distribution could begin within 24 hours of regulatory approval, while Mr Pence said the administration believes that will be the week of Dec 14. Vaccines will be largely administered by pharmacies such as those owned by CVS Health Corp and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, Mr Azar said.

"It was a very happy call," said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican. He said Pfizer Inc's vaccine could begin arriving in his state by Dec 15.

The call took place against a backdrop of a raging pandemic.

US coronavirus cases surged in the days before the Thanksgiving weekend, including a record 205,000 cases recorded last Friday. The US recorded nearly four million cases in November alone, out of 13.5 million so far. Deaths have been trending up and hospitalisations are at a record level.

"Our healthcare system is experiencing a real challenge," Mr Azar acknowledged on the call.

Some governors on the call expressed surprise to learn that vaccines would be distributed to states at first based on a per-capita formula, counting only those aged 18 and older.

After the call, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said the administration is undecided on who should be vaccinated first.

"The Trump administration believes you vaccinate those 65 and older," Mr Walz told reporters. "The CDC, Dr Fauci, and others say you vaccinate the healthcare workers to get the biggest bang for the buck. Those are discussions that are happening right now."

Mr Pence assured the governors that the administration would support any distribution plan they choose.

His office released a summary of the call, noting that Mr Hahn insisted the vaccine programme "leads to no cut corners". The written summary didn't specify when distribution will begin.

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