Vaccination starts in UK, concern grows over short supply in U.S.
Margaret Keenan, 90, is applauded by staff as she returns to her ward after becoming the first patient in the UK to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, at University Hospital, Coventry, England, Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020. The United Kingdom, one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, is beginning its vaccination campaign, a key step toward eventually ending the pandemic. The same vaccine is in short supply in the U.S. because of inaction by the Trump administration. Biden wants the vaccine to be free for everyone, Trump has not discussed cost. | Jacob King/Pool via AP

WASHINGTON—Even as Pfizer’s anti-coronavirus vaccine heads for approval in the U.S., and subsequent rollout, reports show it could have occurred sooner here, and that there could have been many more doses available.

The reasons for the lag and the shortfall? GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s decisions, or lack of them.

The delays and limited distribution are both important. As of 11 am on Dec. 8, 15 million people in the U.S., cumulatively, have tested positive for the increasingly galloping viral plague.

And 284,116 have died since the coronavirus pandemic was officially declared on March 13. That’s not counting those who may have contracted the virus, officially called COVID-19, in the three months beforehand, according to Trump-repressed data from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Trump refused to invoke the Defense Production Act to force all of Big Pharma to work in its labs to create and test anti-viral vaccines. Instead, his regime has doled out billions of dollars to the firms to encourage them to do so. That refusal meant vaccine research and development lagged.

Trump also has been silent on corporate pricing, and potential price-gouging, when the vaccine becomes available.

The New York Times reported in early December the Trump government contracted earlier this year to buy 100 million doses of Pfizer’s anti-viral vaccine, when it became available, but then turned down the firm’s offer to sell it more. So Pfizer is now selling vaccine to other nations, including Great Britain. Vaccination started there on Dec. 7.

Trump vaccine task force spokesmen denied the Times report. Nevertheless, on Dec. 8, Trump issued an executive order trumpeting, in typical fashion, that U.S. residents would “come first” in vaccine purchases. And he still didn’t mention cost.

Not so Democratic President-Elect Joe Biden. His anti-coronavirus vaccine plan calls for universal distribution of the vaccine, free of cost to patients, victims, and the rest of the U.S.

Biden says his top health officials, including his vaccine task force, will “plan for the effective, equitable distribution of treatments and vaccines—because development isn’t enough if they aren’t effectively distributed.”

He also pledges to “invest $25 billion in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan that will guarantee it gets to every American, cost-free,” and that vaccine production will occur in U.S. facilities.

“We must ensure the millions of Americans who suffer long-term side effects from COVID don’t face higher premiums or denial of health insurance because of this new pre-existing condition,” Biden adds in another comment on potential private-sector price-gouging.

“And politics will play no role in determining the safety and efficacy of any vaccine,” he also promises.

That’s in direct contradiction to Trump’s edict shortchanging New York state after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) appointed an independent panel of medical experts to review federal vaccine findings because Cuomo doesn’t trust Trump. Under the radar, Chicago also has such a panel, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

Instead, Biden said his incoming administration would “adhere to three principles governing how and when to distribute vaccines”: Having scientists determine vaccine safety and efficiency, public release of clinical data for any approved vaccine, and authorizing career federal scientists and staffers to write a public report on vaccines and testify freely to Congress about vaccination.

Meanwhile, Trump disregarded the scientists. And until a Food and Drug Administration independent medical advisory panel released its report on Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 8, available information has come from drug company press releases.

Biden also pledges to “ensure everyone–not just the wealthy and well-connected—in America receives the protection and care they deserve, and consumers are not price gouged as new drugs and therapies come to market.”

That’s important, too: While nurses and other medical personnel are first in line for any expected vaccines, with nursing home residents and staffers just behind, the story has been different for anti-coronavirus testing.

Privileged groups, notably college and pro athletes, have been tested frequently, while lack of testing for nurses has led members of National Nurses United to agitate and at times walk out of, hospitals on the West Coast to protest lack of tests.

A nurse administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy’s Hospital in London, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. U.K. health authorities rolled out the first doses of a widely tested and independently reviewed COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, starting a global immunization program that is expected to gain momentum as more serums win approval. | Frank Augstein/AP

NNU has also campaigned, starting even before the pandemic was officially proclaimed, to get the Trump regime to invoke the Defense Production Act to force factories to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 masks and ventilators.

“If this program had been in place since March, we could have saved tens of thousands of lives and alleviated massive suffering in our nation,” NNU President Zenei Cortez, RN, said of Biden’s plan. “Not only does the plan address the current crisis, but it would also begin to rebuild the infrastructure needed to be able to respond to infectious disease outbreaks,” she added.

Besides Pfizer, two other drug companies, AstraZeneca and Moderna, responded with vaccines that, at least according to their reports, have been 95% efficient against the virus.

Trump didn’t invoke the Defense Production Act to demand and get immediate vaccine research and development. But the Defense Department used it, the Times reported, to quickly award contracts for supplies—medicine vats, dry ice, syringes, and so on–needed to make and distribute the vaccines.

The result has been that expected available doses of the vaccine by the end of December will be far short of initial forecasts.

Gov. Larry Hogan, R-Md., chair of the National Governors Association and a constant critic of Trump’s inaction against the virus, told a press conference on Dec. 1 his state will get only about half the doses it needs to vaccinate medical personnel and nursing home residents.

And Lightfoot told Face The Nation on Dec. 6 her city accepted federal conditions on priority for distributing the 23,000 doses it expects. Medical personnel will be first, she said. Essential workers will be right behind. But “it’s really a fraction of what we need,” she said of that dosage count.

Because those two groups are first in line for vaccines, Lightfoot added, Black and brown people in Chicago, who have been disproportionately victims of COVID-19—as they have been nationwide—will be better served, she stated.

“The good news about that for a city like Chicago is obviously our front-line health care workers are going to get it,” Lightfoot told interviewer Margaret Brennan.

“They are very diverse. Our essential workers will be next in the queue. They are extraordinarily diverse and really lean towards people of color. So there will be an equity lens as it applies to distribution of the vaccine here in Chicago.”

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CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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