U.S. steps closer to vaccine as Britain starts first COVID-19 shots

FILE PHOTO: A small shopping basket filled with vials labeled “COVID-19 – Coronavirus Vaccine” and medical syringes are placed on a U.S. flag in this illustration taken November 29, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Ilustration

(Reuters) -U.S. regulators stepped closer to approving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday as a 90-year-old British woman became the first person outside of trials to receive the shot, offering hope of slowing a pandemic that has pushed hospitals to the brink.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration sought to shore up the U.S. vaccine supply and Congress progressed toward a stopgap COVID-19 relief package on Monday, when another 203,474 infections were reported and another 1,582 people died.

Pfizer Inc is on the cusp of winning U.S. approval for the vaccine it developed with Germany’s BioNTech, clearing a hurdle on Tuesday when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released documents that did not raise any new issues about its safety or efficacy.

Britain has already authorized the Pfizer vaccine, enabling Margaret Keenan, 90, to receive the first shot at her local hospital in Coventry in central England.

While China and Russia have gone forward with their own vaccines, Britain is the first Western nation to begin mass inoculations.

The United States could soon follow as an FDA panel of outside advisers will meet on Thursday to discuss whether to recommend emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine. U.S. health officials predict a swift green light with inoculations starting days or weeks later.

Outgoing President Donald Trump will sign an executive order on Tuesday to ensure that priority access for COVID-19 vaccines procured by the U.S. government is given to the American people before assisting other nations.

The signing follows a New York Times report that Pfizer may not be able to provide more of its vaccine to the United States until next June because of its commitments to other countries.

The Washington Post also reported that the Trump administration months ago passed on the chance to buy twice as many as the 100 million doses they agreed to. Pfizer had urged the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed program to purchase 200 million doses, enough for 100 million people as the vaccine is administered in two shots, the Post reported.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany denied the reports, telling reporters, “The administration didn’t pass. We contracted with many other companies.”

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, a leader of Operation Warp Speed, said on Tuesday he was confident there will be enough vaccines to immunize Americans by the middle of next year.

“We have committed to have enough vaccine doses to immunize the full population by the middle of the year, 2021. We remain confident this will be the case,” he said in an interview with Fox News.



Besides Pfizer, other global pharmaceuticals are advancing toward a vaccine, including Moderna Inc, which is a week behind Pfizer in the approval process; AstraZeneca Plc; and Johnson & Johnson.

While the Trump administration has faced criticism for its handling of the pandemic, it has won some accolades for aiding the development of a vaccine through Operation Warp Speed.

President-elect Joe Biden, who takes over from Trump on Jan. 20, unveiled his nominations to run his coronavirus response on Monday, picking California Attorney General Xavier Becker for secretary of health and human services.

Congress has long delayed a fresh infusion of coronavirus aid to families and businesses reeling from a pandemic that has killed nearly 284,000 people and thrown millions out of work. But lawmakers will vote on a stopgap measure this week to give them more time to reach a deal on a broad $1.4 trillion spending bill that would include the coronavirus relief.

Out in the country, hospitals are buckling with a record 101,498 COVID-19 patients as of Monday, up 16 percent in a week.

The number of U.S. infections since the pandemic began approached 15 million.

Some three-fourths of California’s nearly 40 million people are under strict orders to close shop and stay at home, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to ban indoor restaurant dining in New York City.

Pennsylvania’s healthcare systems are “precariously close to being overwhelmed,” state officials warned on Monday as the state sets daily records for new cases.

“This is a significant challenge for our healthcare system. … Sadly, we have now seen deaths from COVID-19 in every county in the state, and our hospitals in many locations are at or near capacity,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement.

Nationally, the number of new coronavirus cases rose 19% to 1.4 million in the week ending Sunday, leading top health officials to sound the alarm of further spread when people gather for the year-end holidays.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Doina Chiacu, Anurag Maan, Manas Mishra, Mike Erman, Jeff Mason and Maria Caspani; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)



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