Biden plans to release available COVID-19 vaccines instead of holding back for second doses

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WASHINGTON — The incoming Biden administration announced a plan Friday to prioritize the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Federal officials with the Trump administration have been holding back enough vaccine doses to guarantee booster shots to everyone who got the first dose.

But Biden’s transition team said Friday that it doesn’t make sense to hold back vaccine at a time when more American’s are dying than at any point in the pandemic. Instead, they want to get shots into more arms, then follow up with second doses later.

“The president-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible,” spokesman T.J. Ducklo said in a statement sent to USA TODAY. Biden “supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now.”

After a glow of hope when the first vaccines were approved last month, the nation’s inoculation campaign has gotten off to a slow start. Of 29.4 million doses distributed, about 5.9 million have been administered, or 28%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The American Hospital Association estimates the nation would need to vaccinate 1.8 million people a day, every day, from Jan. 1 to May 31, to reach the goal of having widespread immunity by the summer. That’s also called “herd immunity” and would involve vaccinating at least 75% of the population.

Both vaccines authorized for use were studied in a two-dose regimen, with the Pfizer-BioNTech doses given 21 days apart and Moderna’s 28 days apart.

The “safer” choice is to stick to the studied regimen, said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. But she thinks it makes sense right now to follow the British model, where officials have said people can wait up to 12 weeks to get the second shot.

Two new variants of the virus, one tied to Britain and the other to South Africa and Brazil, seem to increase the transmissibility of the virus – though not risk for serious disease – raising the urgency to get vaccine into arms, she said.

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“Because of the fact that these variants are spread throughout the world and becoming rampant, we really need to vaccinate as many people as possible,” said Iwasaki, whose home state of Connecticut announced it had found two local cases of the British variant Thursday.

There’s biological reason to believe the vaccines will be even more effective with an 8- to 12-week gap between the shots rather than 3-4 weeks, she said. 

The first shot alerts the immune system to the virus, which seems to be highly effective in the short-term. The second shot supports “memory” and long-term protection, she said, which takes some time for the body to build.

“You really want to give your immune system time to develop these things and then get a booster,” Iwasaki said.

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Vaccinologist Dr. Greg Poland discusses what it's like after your first dosage of COVID-19 vaccine.

USA TODAY

It was logical earlier in the pandemic to test the vaccine with a short gap between the two shots, both to speed up the research studies and to promote full immunity as quickly as possible.

“That makes sense in a pandemic,” Iwasaki said, but the slow rollout of the vaccine and the urgency of the current need calls for a new strategy.

Changing strategies mid-stream however, could sow confusion and potentially doubt about the vaccine, she warned, and any shift should be coupled with a “good public campaign to promote that idea.”

People have to recognize that they remain vulnerable to the virus between the two shots, and must continue to wear masks, maintain distance, wash hands frequently and avoid crowds, particularly indoors, she said.

Ducklo said Biden will share additional details next week on how his administration will engage the pandemic when he takes office on Jan. 20.

Biden’s plan to change the vaccine distribution plan was first reported by CNN.

Contributing: USA TODAY’s Joey Garrison; Associated Press. 

Contact Karen Weintraub at kweintraub@usatoday.com and Adrianna Rodriguez at Arodriguez@usatoday.com.

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