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CDC Discusses Plan For Distribution Of A Future Coronavirus Vaccine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available in the United States, there won't be enough doses for everyone right away. So who should get it first? That is the big question facing a committee advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC. That committee met today to consider vaccine distribution and vaccine safety. NPR's Pien Huang is keeping track of this.

Hello again, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hello, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So who is this committee? Who's on - who's in the group? What's their role?

HUANG: Yeah. So the group is called the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. And this is a group of experts that reviews every vaccine the FDA approves. It's a federal advisory group that's been around for decades, and they make recommendations to the CDC director about things like who should get a vaccine and how frequently it should be given out. They usually meet three times a year. But since we're in a pandemic, they're now meeting every month to discuss the issues around a COVID-19 vaccine.

KELLY: OK, so today was the day they had this all-day meeting - online, of course. What was the agenda?

HUANG: Yeah. So today they focused on a couple things. They focused on safety, on equity, and they also raised concerns about vaccine hesitancy. The group got a presentation from one of its members on what's happening to ensure that a vaccine that is approved is safe. And, you know, there have been concerns in the public about, is this something that's being rushed? Dr. Robert Atmar from Baylor College of Medicine is a committee member. And here he is at the meeting today.

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ROBERT ATMAR: We want the public to be reassured that any vaccine that is - has gone through the appropriate review.

HUANG: And they didn't just talk about the safety of the vaccine. They also talked about ensuring the safety of vaccination sites. One member of the committee, Paul Hunter from the city of Milwaukee, mentioned that threats against Milwaukee's health commissioner led her to resign. So a CDC rep said that safety at vaccine sites is important, and they'll be adding those considerations in their game plans for states.

KELLY: Wow, so many things to think about there, OK. Meanwhile, they were expected to vote today, trying to prioritize who would get a vaccine first. They delayed the vote. How come?

HUANG: Yeah. So the committee had initially planned to vote, as you mentioned, on which priority groups should get a COVID-19 vaccine first. But today they said they just don't have the information right now. The committee is considering four groups that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. It's healthcare workers that care for COVID-19 patients. It's essential workers, and it's older people who have a higher risk of dying if they get the disease. And it's also people with medical conditions like cancer or obesity who could get very sick from getting it. Underscoring all of this is the issue of equity. The data shows very clearly that Black, Latino and Native populations have been bearing the brunt of sickness and death when it comes to the pandemic. And if these communities can't get these vaccines, they will continue to suffer the most impacts from COVID-19.

KELLY: So just briefly, what exactly are they looking for to try to figure out who will get the first vaccines?

HUANG: Yeah. So the committee is looking for data that's coming out from phase 3 clinical trials that are currently underway. Here's Grace Lee, a pediatrics professor at Stanford and a committee member, at today's meeting.

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GRACE LEE: So for example, the benefit of balance in adults over 65 looks quite different than in younger adults. That might influence the ordering and vice versa.

HUANG: They're also looking for information on how a vaccine needs to be stored. And it's also going to be important to know how many doses will be available and when.

KELLY: Right.

HUANG: That information is currently unknown. But as soon as a vaccine is approved, the committee will have an emergency meeting to finalize recommendations.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Pien.

HUANG: Thank you so much.

KELLY: NPR's Pien Huang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.