Biden’s claim of no COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan “just nonsense”

Two days ago, the first transition contact between the outgoing and incoming administrations on COVID-19 plans finally took place. Shortly afterward, Joe Biden complained that the distribution plan at HHS “lacked detail” about getting it from the manufacturer to the actual vaccination point. “There is no detailed plan that we’ve seen, anyway,” Biden remarked, “as to how you get the vaccine out of a container into an injection syringe into somebody’s arm.”

On Fox News Sunday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar called that “just nonsense.” The issue might be more about the transition than about distribution plans, however:

“With all respect that’s just nonsense, we have comprehensive plans from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] working with 64 public health jurisdictions across the country,” Azar said after Fox’s Chris Wallace played a clip of Biden making the remark.

“There is no detailed plan, that we’ve seen anyway, as to how you get the vaccine out of a container, into an injection syringe, into somebody’s arm,” Biden said in the clip shown by Wallace.

Azar added that the administration was “leveraging our retail pharmacies, our public health departments, our community health centers,” to get a vaccine out.

He said the rollout was “being micromanaged and controlled by the United States military” as well as the private sector.

“We’re leveraging the systems that are known and that work within the United States,” he said.

Biden’s main complaint seemed to be defined in the phrase “that we’ve seen, anyway.” It may be just that they haven’t yet seen the plan at all. The transition has gotten off to a slow start, thanks to Trump’s insistence on challenging the election results. They may not have seen the full plan simply because there hasn’t been enough time to share it. If the two sides just started engaging this week, the issue may be more that the personnel are still making the connections necessary for full-scale information sharing.

It’s not as if distribution plans have been a big secret, though. We already know how vaccines will get “into somebody’s arm” in nursing homes, for instance — CVS has already signed up as HHS’ partner in that effort. Azar also spoke two weeks ago about the dry runs that HHS has conducted with other partners on rapid deployment of the vaccine. Thanks to the particularly unique needs for refrigeration of the Pfizer vaccine, we have also gotten significant information on distribution issues, including shipments beginning nearly a week ago to the US from Belgium and the preparation in distribution centers here for proper storage.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the issue nine days ago, giving some detail on the distribution plans. The FAA is playing an active role in this as well:

The initial flights are one link in a global supply chain being assembled to tackle the logistical challenge of distributing Covid-19 vaccines. Pfizer has been laying the groundwork to move quickly if it gets approval from the Food and Drug Administration and other regulators world-wide.

Pfizer’s distribution plan also includes refrigerated storage sites at the drugmaker’s final-assembly centers in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Puurs, Belgium, and expanding storage capacity at distribution sites in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., and in Karlsruhe, Germany, in addition to dozens of cargo flights and hundreds of truck trips each day. …

United plans to fly chartered cargo flights between Brussels International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport to support distribution of the vaccine, according to a Nov. 24 letter from the Federal Aviation Administration viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The FAA said in a statement Friday that it was supporting the “first mass air shipment of a vaccine,” and that it is working with airlines to safely transport Covid-19 vaccines.

United had sought permission to carry more dry ice than is typically allowed on flights to maintain the extremely low temperatures required to prevent Pfizer’s vaccine from spoiling. The FAA said it would allow United to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight—five times more than normally permitted. Regulators restrict the amount of dry ice that can be carried on passenger jets because they typically lack equipment to monitor and mitigate any leaked carbon dioxide.

All of this activity has hardly been hidden. Neither has the process by which the FDA will chose which arms will get priority in accessing the vaccine. It’s been debated for weeks in the open, and the decision the past week to prioritize front-line health care workers widely covered in the press. It’s clear that HHS does have a detailed distribution plan and that they will execute it on December 10, when the FDA is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use. That’s seven weeks before it officially becomes a Biden administration responsibility.

Azar tells ABC that he doesn’t see any reason for the FDA to hold up an emergency approval, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t use their “gold standard” process before doing so. Azar also tells George Stephanopoulos that he expects to administer 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the first month, and that Moderna and AstraZeneca could add scores of millions more. Perhaps as soon as February, prioritization may not be a problem any longer.

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