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Biden Plans To Stop Holding Back COVID-19 Vaccines


All right. We're going to turn now to NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, who's been listening in and joins us now. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: You just heard Dr. Gawande describe this plan to stop holding vaccine back. Is this a good idea, according to people that you have been talking to?

STEIN: Yeah, good question. So there's a really intense debate going on about this. And, you know, some public health experts and scientists that I've been talking to have been - say they've been pushing for this for quite some time. They say the most important thing right now is to get the vaccine into as many people as fast as possible. And while two shots are better than one, one shot is still pretty good, and you'd end up saving more lives if more people get one shot than waiting for fewer people to get two.

I talked about this today with Marc Lipsitch at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He says it's become even more urgent because of the emergence of these new variants of the virus that appear to be more contagious.

MARC LIPSITCH: As the virus continues to spread and as we begin to contemplate the possibility of the new variant or other new variants becoming more of a problem in this country, it's a race against time. And the faster we get vaccine out, the better.

CHANG: OK. Well, you heard me ask Dr. Gawande about some problems that might arise, like not enough vaccine...

STEIN: Right.

CHANG: ...For second doses.

STEIN: Yeah.

CHANG: Are there other concerns?

STEIN: Yeah. So as you said, the critics say the big problem right now is not not having enough vaccine; the big problem is getting the vaccine that's out there actually into people's arms. So that should be the focus. But there are also big worries about, as you mentioned, not having enough vaccine to make sure everyone gets that second shot. You know, no one knows how helpful the protection from one shot will really be. You know, how long will it last? How strong will it be? And a spokesman for Operation Warp Speed released a statement today that was really sharply critical of Biden's plans if it threatens that booster.

I talked about this with Angela Rasmussen. She's a virologist at Georgetown.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: The danger is that the vaccines might actually be, long term, less efficacious than they've been shown to be when using the regimen that's authorized for use. It could be potentially really harmful if we decide to deviate from that just because of a short-term supply issue.

STEIN: And Rasmussen and others also worry that if too many people end up only getting that one shot and that ends up only giving them a very weak protection, it could actually kind of backfire by, you know, helping new variants of the virus evolve that could outsmart the vaccines. Here's Angela Rasmussen again.

RASMUSSEN: People might have sort of subpar vaccine responses, and that could allow for the selection of variants that might be able to evade the immune responses produced by the vaccine.

CHANG: And real quick, Rob - what are other people saying about those concerns?

STEIN: Yeah, so I talked to Dr. Anthony Fauci from the NIH about this this afternoon. And he, you know, said what Dr. Gawande said - that there are absolutely no plans to abandon the two-shot regimen, that the new administration is committed to that. And President-elect Biden's press secretary told reporters today that if necessary, the new administration would invoke the Defense Production Act, if necessary, to compel the companies to do what's necessary to make sure those second shots are there.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.