US hopes to start virus vaccines in December as pandemic surges
The United States hopes to begin coronavirus vaccinations in early December, a top government health official said Sunday, the latest positive news to emerge even as cases surge across the worst-hit nation and elsewhere around the globe.
The beginning of vaccinations could be a crucial shift in the battle against a virus that has claimed more than 1.4 million lives worldwide, including 255,000 just in the US, since emerging from China late last year.
A slew of positive results from vaccines has bolstered hopes for an end to the pandemic as surging cases force nations to reimpose restrictions and lockdowns that slowed the spread earlier this year but turned lives and economies upside down across the globe.
Two leading vaccine candidates -- one by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech and another by US firm Moderna -- have shown to be 95 percent effective and Pfizer already applied to emergency use approval from US health authorities.
"Our plan is to be able to ship vaccines to the immunization sites within 24 hours of approval" by the US Food and Drug Administration, Moncef Slaoui, head of the US government virus vaccine effort, told CNN, pointing to possible dates of December 11-12.
FDA vaccine advisors reportedly will meet December 10 to discuss approving vaccines.
Slaoui estimated that 20 million people across the US could be vaccinated in December, with 30 million per month after that.
US drug regulators on Saturday already gave emergency approval to a Covid-19 antibody therapy -- one used by US President Donald Trump -- and G20 nations were pushing for global "equitable" access to vaccines with worries poorer nations will be left behind.
With cases surpassing 12 million in the United States, the highest in the world, many Americans were nonetheless heading to airports to travel for next week's Thanksgiving holiday despite health officials' warnings to stay home.
Some US states were imposing new restrictions, including California, where a 10 pm to 5 am curfew was taking effect. New York city has closed schools again.
On the opposite side of the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to announce that restrictions across England are to end on December 2 as planned, his office said.
But the lockdown will be followed by a return to a three-tiered set of regional curbs.
Britain has suffered more than any other country in Europe from the coronavirus, with more than 54,000 deaths from 1.4 million cases.
In the Middle East, Iran announced it had shut non-essential businesses in over half its cities and towns for up to two weeks and introduced movement restrictions.
On Friday, Pfizer and BioNTech requested emergency approval of their vaccine candidate, becoming the first in the United States or Europe to do so, with final trials showing it was 95 percent effective.
But despite those developments, there were concerns that countries across the world will have insufficient access to vaccines, and G20 nations gathered for a virtual summit on Saturday highlighted those worries.
"Although we are optimistic about the progress made in developing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics tools for Covid-19, we must work to create the conditions for affordable and equitable access to these tools for all people," said Saudi King Salman, the summit's host.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said more needed to be done, saying no major vaccine agreements had been struck yet for poorer nations.
"We will now speak with (global vaccine alliance group) GAVI about when these negotiations will begin because I am somewhat worried that nothing has been done on that yet," Merkel told reporters on Sunday in Berlin after the virtual G20 meeting.
Saturday's antibody therapy approval in the United States offers some hope for those infected, though a relatively small number of doses will be available in the coming weeks.
The same therapy was used to treat Trump when he was sickened with the virus.
The green light for drugmaker Regeneron came after REGEN-COV2, a combination of two lab-made antibodies, was shown to reduce Covid-19-related hospitalizations or emergency room visits in patients with underlying conditions.
"Authorizing these monoclonal antibody therapies may help outpatients avoid hospitalization and alleviate the burden on our health care system," said Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration.
Regeneron's antibody treatment is the second synthetic antibody treatment to receive an emergency use approval (EUA) from the FDA after a similar therapy developed by Eli Lilly was granted the status on November 9.
The company said it expects to have doses ready for 80,000 patients by the end of November and approximately 300,000 patients in total by the end of January 2021.
These will be available to US patients at no out-of-pocket cost under the terms of a US government program.